ELLIS — Walk into the Ellis Public Library on any given day, and you might hear the sound of dreams yet unknown in the whirs and beeps of a 3-D printer at work.
Layer by layer, the printer assembles simple plastic creations — a nametag or a cartoon character. But those simple products are the first steps to a young student’s future, said library director Steve Arthur.
The library serving the town of approximately 2,000 has come a long way under Arthur’s direction in the 13 years he’s worked there.
“This library wasn’t really doing anything other than checking out books and doing story hour,” Arthur said.
Like many libraries today, the Ellis library offers a makerspace with hardware and software for 3-D printing.
Early in his tenure as director, Arthur started a youth rocketry program that, well, took off.
“I had a core group that started, and over time I started picking up the siblings. It almost became a rite of passage. They knew when they turned 8, they could take rocketry with their brothers and sisters,” he said.
Now, however, Arthur is shepherding a small group of kids age 7 to 10 through 3-D printing and coding. While now the kids are mostly having fun, they are learning skills that will do them well in the future, Arthur said.
“Everything’s going to be automated. Unless these kids have an understanding of this, they’re going to be lost,” he said.
The latest venture started last spring, when Washington Grade School science teacher Emily Burd asked Arthur to teach computer-assisted design to fourth and fifth grades a few days a week for a few weeks. At the end of the classes, he invited the students to learn more at the library.
His conditions were the students had to be there at least an hour once a week and show up consistently.
No one took him up on it until July, when Grace Brull, 10, came to the library one day. Arthur calls her his star pupil.
“That kid can do stuff with this CAD program that I didn’t even think was possible,” he said.
In these early stages, the students work with Tinkercad, a simple 3-D design program for teachers, students and hobbyists.
“It’s all just taking basic shapes and manipulating them to create a whole,” Arthur said.
Arthur had Grace begin with simple projects — a name tag and a LEGO figurine. But she had her heart set on something more complex.
“I really like Minions, so I really wanted to make a Minion, and I just thought it would be neat to do,” she said of the cylindrical yellow creatures from the animated “Despicable Me” films.
In just a few hours, she had created the character, complete with goggles and overalls.
“I shared her project on one of the 3-D groups I belong to, and they fell in love with her,” Arthur said.
After completing the Minion, Grace designed a King Boo figure from “Mario Kart” for her brother, followed by “Peanuts” characters Charlie Brown and Snoopy.
Soon, other students joined in — Aron and Dora Bencze, Ayden Yonda, Jaron Frickey and Jo DePuy — and started unleashing their creativity on Tinkercad.
“My friends were the ones who made me do this,” said Jo, who attends St. Mary’s Catholic School in Ellis.
She wanted to make something for her friends but didn’t have anything to make it with. They told her about the library and Tinkercad.
“I show them once and — boom — they know what they’re doing,” Arthur said of the students. “I want to see how far they can make it go. They’ve never ceased to amaze me.”
Ten-year-old Ayden, for example, designed a UFO on Tinkercad.
“I had to take rectangles and three different sizes of triangles and join it together,” he said.
Aron, also 10, has taken a figurine called Marvin that is used to calibrate 3-D printers and modified it to create King Marvin with a crown and Pilot Marvin with a helmet and oxygen mask. His sister, Dora, 7, made an igloo.
The toys are fun, but as they complete one project, Arthur encourages them to try something more challenging, including writing code for an Arduino, an open-source electronics platform based on easy to use hardware and software.
Aron already has started on that. He’s used it to program a breathalyzer and a seismograph. He said he’s looking forward to learning more. He wants to be a NASA engineer someday.
“I want to do something that actually can be used in the real world — like gears or stuff that can actually be used to make this world better,” he said.
He’ll get his chance, as Arthur and another of his recruits, Joseph Raub, 19, have a robot to program. Raub built it from a kit last year and took it to the state fair.
“I took my first robotics class in first grade and just loved it,” Raub said.
He started programming the next year, and while he lost interest for a few years, he got back into it in eighth grade.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.
He’s at the library at least one day a week, and even helped Arthur fix the 3-D printer recently.
The four-wheeled robot has ultrasonic sensors, which can detect distance.
“I’m going to teach them more and more complex code to the point where they understand how it works,” Arthur said. “Each kid will get a section to run one sensor or the motors or whatever, and then we’ll thread all that code together into one big code.”
“The plan is to make it detect the distance between objects and avoid those objects,” Raub said.
The robot should be able to maneuver autonomously. Arthur and Ruab plan to also attach a webcam and share its adventures.
Arthur said once each student gets started, he lets the kids guide and encourage each other, but he does push them when needed. It’s something the kids said they appreciate.
“If he wouldn’t have pushed me to do stuff like the Minion, I would have given up,” Grace said.
“Steve always tells us we have these three rules,” Aron said.
“Break it down,” he said, ticking off the rules on his fingers. “If you have a complex thing, break it down into the basic shapes, the rectangles, the cylinders and all those different things.
“Second, change your perspective. On Tinkercad, you can move around so you see different parts of the actual print,” he said.
“Third, use the mouse and not the mouse pad.”
The lessons have helped the kids gain confidence, Arthur said. Jaron, for example, was hesitant to try harder projects, he said.
“I told him out of your entire class, you’re going to be the only kid who knows how to do this. That clicked with him,” he said.
“It’s clicked with a lot of these kids, that this is a skill that nobody else has. I think they get something out of that. They feel like they’re kind of an elite group.
“I tell them you guys are living my dream as a kid.”