Dennis Shelgren is a creative type who appreciates being kicked out of a venue.
“Sometimes I’ve been so successful, I’ve been kicked out – which is kind of a badge of honor, because it means that it’s kind of self-sustaining; I’m not needed there anymore,” Shelgren said with a smile, as he recently addressed the Calaveras Unified School District Board (CUSD), donning shoulder-length purple hair, a three-piece suit, and multiple button badges with different designs in lieu of the buttons on his waistcoat.
Shelgren has recently been made the Federal Delegate for the State of California for Rural and Hybrid Spaces. He leads an initiative to create educational makerspaces.
Makerspaces are a place for children or adults to build, create, learn and tinker with everything from everyday objects to electronics, to 3D printing, to recycling (clean) garbage into memorable creations. Shelgren has helped create and launch five makerspaces within California. He currently has one facility in Sonora, one in Amador and one in Valley Springs.
“Make is an umbrella term for inventors, designers, tinkerers, a convergent of hard tech and soft tech, so everything from coding and building computers to selling inflatable things, and things that light up,” Shelgren explained at the recent CUSD board meeting. “A makerspace is a collaborative space for learning and experimenting and playing, business incubation and resource sharing. We act as hubs to obtain and use emerging technology in innovative ways. A lot of people who come to my space, it’s the first time they’ve ever played with a laser cutter, or a 3D printer, or been able to just drive around a robot and knock over trash cans. Makerspaces provide hands-on experience with technology and techniques not normally taught in schools or even in business environments.”
Bryan Pollock, a co-founder and one of the members of the MotherLode MakerLabs in Sonora, reflected on his experience in high school during the 1970s. He shared that he struggled with math in school, then after joining the military, seeing mathematics in action and used in different applications, suddenly put algebraic equations and geometry into context for him. He feels that a Makerspace-type environment can help bridge the gap some children often experience in a traditional academic learning environment, which can seem sterile to some types of learners, and help put mathematics into action for them. Pollock moved to Tuolumne County in 2002 from the Silicon Valley, and is a regular member of the Motherlode Makerlabs.
Items inside of the Motherlode MakerLabs Makerspace include lamps that have been programmed using Ardiunos, a plastic recycler that turns items such as old cell phone cases or plastic bottles into spooled plastic (which is then upcycled into 3D printing creations), a laser cutter and a 3D printer, as well as other prototype applications.
On display at MakerLabs are multiple projects built by members. One is an arcade game with over 3,000 games, another is a robotic arm that has the capability of grabbing money. Included with the more complex and technical items in the lab are Lego sets and items for all different age groups.
Richard Call, a member of MakerLabs, likes to keep project supplies in the Makerspace that are suitable for all age groups and skill levels.
“We try to keep the ‘A’ in Steam, instead of just focusing on STEM. I personally like both; I like the intersection between arts and engineering – I think it’s really fun,” Call said.
There are fundraising projects to help raise funds for the Makerspace, including one in-progress by member Anthony Edwards, for an escape room – which includes a complex set of puzzles to open other areas of the room. His hope is to open the Makerspace on the weekends, and to charge a small fee to journey into the escape room.
Some of the completed fundraising projects are items that have been built entirely in the Makerspace, such as a 3D printed chess set and wooden dinosaurs with juxtaposed pieces that have been created using the laser cutter.
There are fourth and fifth graders who have taken field trips to the Sonora Makerspace. The Arts Alliance does a summer art camp that they participate in.
Both Shelgren and his wife Melissa are family-focused and involved with education. Their oldest son graduated and is now in college. Melissa Shelgren was a teacher, and after they discovered that both of their school-age children have autism, it changed the direction of both their careers. Shelgren left his previous career working in high-tech to focus on family and to take part in the venture of creating makerspaces locally. After teaching locally and in Stockton, Melissa Shelgren was able to further her education and became the Program Specialist for autism in the Stockton Unified School District.
Shelgren said he “test crashes” his programs with his own two boys and troubleshoots what can go wrong, as well as adopts ideas they may have.
Creating and establishing a dedicated location for a makerspace is difficult, so the spaces are often hybrid spaces, located in community centers or classrooms. Funding sources typically come from grants or donations.
Shelgren’s makerspace in Valley Springs is located in the Valley Springs Youth Center and is open on Sundays. It was closed temporarily for “rebuilding.” Some of the improvements include a “wall of shame/laughter,” where some of the failed experiments are kept on display.
Shelgren is a proponent for failure, for both himself as a teacher, as well as his students. He feels this troubleshooting and moral lesson is an integral part of the learning process, and teaches children not to fear failure as much. He believes it also makes the educational process more transparent and immersive for children. Sometimes he will set up a demo that fails on purpose, so that the children can then reverse-engineer the issue.
“The kids all go, ‘oh, what a tragedy!’ I start laughing, and the children start laughing. I ask the children, ‘what’s the next step? We’re going to learn something now – what did I do wrong?’ Knowing what I did wrong is probably just as important as knowing how that motor works,” Shelgren said.
He then leads the children to troubleshoot the issue.
Shelgren’s venture is not a paid position at this time. He is the first of his kind in the area. As the state delegate, he is given the option to write grants and help change laws, if need be.
His focus is currently on creating a stand-alone makerspace in the area, which would be free for children in the kindergarten through 12th-grade age group to participate in. One of his goals is to start an independent makerspace and bring it into schools. He wants to acquire and convert a school bus or an unused book mobile into a portable makerspace, which would allow him to transport an entire workshop to a school or fair. “Still a long way to go before everything is coordinated and working well,” Shelgren says of his progress. His funding focus relies heavily on grants, and he is currently mostly exploring research grants, since they are funded for three to five years.
“That would be really cool. It’s a dream for us, too,” Call said regarding Shelgren’s efforts. “It’s probably not going to immediately happen for us, but it sounds awesome. You could pack a lot. We pack a lot into this little classroom. We could just take a good amount of it, and fit it into a delivery truck, or something that looks like a food truck.”
Donations are welcome, as Shelgren’s enterprise is a combination of profit and non-profit operations. In addition, supplies are also welcomed.
“If it plugs in, if it moves, or if it lights up – I’m probably interested,” he said.
For more information, contact Shelgren at firstname.lastname@example.org.