staff, October 17, 2014

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During football and basketball games, BTN LiveBIG will spotlight notable examples of research, innovation and community service from around the conference. In-Game stories will provide more background on these features, and the opportunity to view the videos again.

?Sector67? sounds like an ominous setting from a sci-fi story - perhaps a secret government laboratory or an unexplored part of a recently discovered planet. But it?s a real place in Madison, Wis., and the things that eventually come out of it just might make some of the most outlandish technologies in science fiction seem downright prosaic.

The brainchild of Wisconsin alumnus Chris Meyer, Sector67 is what?s known as a ?hackerspace.? This term refers to any physical area that?s dedicated to open, collaborative and technology-oriented work. That doesn?t necessarily mean it?s just groups of techies who tinker around on computers, though you can often see them too. These places have people working on everything from metallurgy to ceramics.

?They can use the tools and equipment, and take classes,? said Meyer, who?s also Sector67?s director. ?It gives people an opportunity to come in at entry-level and learn new things. We can have high-school or grade-school kids come in - and their parents will come along with them - and they?ll get an opportunity to run equipment or tools. Or if they?re very experienced, they can just get access to the equipment.?

Several aspects of hackerspaces are appealing to would-be inventors and entrepreneurs. For one thing, it?s a natural gathering place for people of all ages who share an interest in, say, woodworking or electronic circuitry. Plus, it houses so many tools and raw materials in one spot. Yet the most attractive feature may be that they can test and build whatever they like, with no outside pressure to work on anything in particular for commercial ends.

Sector67 has already seen a few interesting inventions, Meyer said. These include a single-serving muffin-making machine, an automated greenhouse that can care for plants, and a decoy owl that can ?protect? a backyard by traveling across a zip line to scare off squirrels and other pests when they?re detected.

But the most interesting thing about all of those inventions might be the fact that they?ve been developed by people who haven?t even graduated from high school. They?re all part of a program at Sector67 that encourages young people to take their ideas from conception to implementation.

?It?s like a summer internship for anybody who is under 18,? Meyer explained. ?All they have to do is provide us with a quick paragraph on what their idea is and then a sketch of their concept. We?ll pair them with a mentor, and then we get local funders to provide money for them to build their concepts out. They end up having created some kind of a prototype or some kind of an object that they can go home with and continue to develop or continue to work on.

?We also provide classes to high-school and grade-school kids. We go out and do an after-school science club at middle schools. We work in a variety of different areas. And our evening classes host everyone from retirees to high school kids, all in the same class and so we get kind of the one-room schoolhouse effect. That works really well.?

That youth outreach and education is a point of pride for Meyer, who grew up feeling like there weren?t many resources available for kids like him, who were interested in doing hands-on technology and engineering work. Though he had long been aware of the need, he didn?t come up with the specific idea for Sector67 until he arrived at the University of Wisconsin as a mechanical engineering graduate student.

Meyer submitted a plan for the hackerspace as part of a competition at UW?s business school. His pitch won second place and he received a $7,000 award, which helped him start Sector67. Since getting it off the ground, he?s enjoyed watching members of the community come together to create. Especially the younger ones.

?You watch that spark happen with these kids,? he said, ?and you realize that?s going to be a next-generation engineer, or that?s going to be the next great technologist, or that?s somebody who?s going to create really awesome artwork for the community to enjoy.?

By Brian Summerfield