By Margaret McKinney
New Mexico Highlands University media arts graduate Mariano Ulibarri put Las Vegas on the map in the makerspace movement when he established the fifth Hacker Scouts guild in the country, with cities like New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles following suit.
Ulibarri’s cutting-edge Parachute Factory makerspace at 166 Bridge St. was featured recently in a story in Getting Smart, a Seattle-based technology and education website.
Ulibarri established the Las Vegas Hacker Scouts guild in February and it grew quickly via word of mouth. Nearly 50 local youths aged 7 to 16 meet with him weekly at Parachute Factory to create their inventions.
Hacker Scouts is a national nonprofit that formed in Oakland, Calif., in 2012 to help kids build skills and creativity in STEAM — science, technology, engineering, art and math.
“Being involved in making something — whether it’s a video game or a sopaipilla — leads you to a deeper understanding and appreciation,” said Ulibarri, 32, a fourth-generation Las Vegas photographer. “That’s what a makerspace is all about. The makerspace movement is growing exponentially from coast to coast and globally.
“It’s powerful to go from an idea to an object without having to outsource. In a throw-away society, this is empowering and builds self-reliance,” Ulibarri said.
A makerspace is a do-it-yourself environment that brings people together to create, tinker, and repair items using open-source computer hardware and software, and other technology tools like three-dimensional printers and scanners, screen printing.
A grant from Los Alamos National Security LLC helped fund Ulibarri’s makerspace, where he says ideas flourish in a collaborative spirit.
“Our goal with the Parachute Factory is to mix low-tech with high-tech and connect kids to local traditions,” said Ulibarri, who developed the makerspace for his master’s thesis in media arts. He earned his graduate degree in May with an emphasis in physical computing and multimedia.
Growing up, Ulibarri was also a tinkerer and hacker.
“The word hacking has a negative connotation but in the Hacker Scouts context, we think of hacking as an outlet for curiosity and experimentation,” Ulibarri said. “Right now the kids in our Las Vegas guild are working on three tracts: 3-D printing, electronic textiles using microcontrollers, and video game development.
“What’s consistent across all these tracts is the use of computer programming. The kids come voluntarily and absolutely love it. It’s exciting for them to be working and experimenting with cutting-edge technology,” Ulibarri said.
Ulibarri said the type of kids who are drawn to makerspaces are ones who want to transform everyday objects into incredible inventions — giving an example of one scout who turned an electric guitar into a controller for his computer.
Elizabeth Neeley is the director of digital information and access at the Art Institute of Chicago. In February, she presented a digital imaging lecture series at Highlands for media arts. She also led a Hacker Scouts activity at Parachute Factory where the youths used 3-D scanning to create busts of each scout.
“I think Mariano’s Parachute Factory is a fantastic model for grassroots makerspaces,” Neeley said. “I love that Mariano has a vision for creating a successful makerspace in Las Vegas that is community focused but not insular — it’s connected to both local and national people to enrich the makerspace experience. He’s highly skilled, resourceful and collaborative.
“The Hacker Scouts in Las Vegas are fantastic kids — very curious, playful, competent and collaborative. It’s a beautiful thing to see,” Neeley said.
On June 29, the Las Vegas Hacker Scouts will showcase their work for the community from 1 to 7 p.m. at Parachute Factory. The community is invited to see the latest makerspace technology and build their own creations.
At his makerspace, Ulibarri draws on his teaching experience. After graduating with a B.A. degree in photography from Webster University in St. Louis, Ulibarri taught English as a second language for two years in Tokyo. He has also taught digital photography, computer fundamentals, and other subjects locally at Rio Gallinas School, Pecos Middle School, New Mexico Highlands University Media Arts Department, Luna Community College, and United World College-USA.
“First and foremost, I’m a maker but I’m also passionate about teaching. At the Parachute Factory, I want to share the process of discovery with kids and adults. I’m very grateful that Miriam Langer, my media arts adviser for Parachute Factory, encouraged and pushed me to make it a larger scale, ongoing makerspace. She has opened so many doors for me,” Ulibarri said.
Neeley said that the media arts faculty at Highlands is a forward-thinking powerhouse that provides exceptional real-world opportunities and support for its students.