Maker (Faire Producer) Spotlight: Elise & Adam Spontarelli

Maker News
Maker (Faire Producer) Spotlight: Elise & Adam Spontarelli

Elise and Adam Spontarelli have incorporated making into all aspects of their lives. Recognizing the need for a collaborative community space in their hometown, they started a makerspace in Lynchburg, Virginia — Vector Space, an 12,000 sq. ft workshop that boasts wood and metal shops, electronics and textile areas, classroom and meeting space, a computer lab, laser cutters and 3D printers, and open workspace for makers. Joining them are their two young children, now at home due to pandemic school closures, who have reaped the benefit of their DIY and project-based learning skills, bringing this family affair full circle.

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Last Thursday (1/21/21), Elise joined us on our weekly Plan C Live webinar series, cohosted with Nation of Makers, to share her thoughts on “The State Of Play” and what’s happening for kids outside the classroom and some of the amazing work they’ve been doing through Vector Space. Given the inventiveness and replicability of those projects and their focus on building community and connection, as well as the timely celebration of Vector Space’s five year anniversary and their upcoming virtual Maker Faire, we reached out to learn more about Elise and Adam and what they’ve been up to.

Since 2017, their community outreach has lead them to producing Maker Faire Lynchburg as part of the week long SciFest at Randolph College. And, although the challenges of the pandemic have put many Maker Faire events on hold — including last year’s Maker Faire Lynchburg — this year, Elise and Adam are bringing their amazing teamwork and considerable tech skills to the creation of a virtual Maker Faire, coming up March 28th.

As part of the Vector Space COVID-19 response, Elise and Adam have also been running a Repair Cafe at Vector Space: “As re-opening and getting back to “normal” will be a gradual process, we wanted a way to engage with our community in lieu of our usual hands-on educational events like First Friday and Maker Faire Lynchburg. We also wanted to serve a need in our community. Now more than ever the financial strain of job loss and a struggling economy can make replacing broken household goods difficult.” They joined our Plan C Live episode Fix It Yourself to tell us more about it and also created  a video series of their repairs as a tool to educate folks about the environmental value of reuse and to teach them how to fix their own stuff.

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What kinds of stuff do you make? 

One of our first maker projects that we worked on together was an arcade machine that we built in the summer of 2006 while on college break. We used free plans off the internet and accidentally painted it purple the first go- we were pretty new to this “making” thing. An old CRT television placed sideways serves as the display, run by RetroArch on an old PC. Our skills built slowly until we founded Vector Space in 2015, which led to our own improved access to tools and maker collaborators and in turn increased our skills and abilities with rapidity. We love community collaboration, and have created interactive art for outdoor concerts, food pantries to serve our neighbors, and teaching tools including a 20ft long wrench to demonstrate torque for first graders as they break 1/2″ bolts with minimal effort. In 2017 we built a giant floating arm trebuchet with other members of the makerspace, and blew the other pumpkin chucking competitors out of the park. This school year, teaching our own children and their peers in a COVID-induced co-op, we helped them build walking arm trebuchets from this Make trebuchet tutorial and they delighted in launching tennis balls over the neighbors’ houses. Our kids are 5 and 7, and we love to see their own maker mindset develop and grow.

How did you get started making stuff?

Every obstacle is an opportunity to make something. I’m sitting on the bench I made at our dining table, which offers more seating and less scrambling for chairs when we have guests for dinner. Our kids are out front playing street hockey with the wooden hockey sticks Adam made to combat quarantine fatigue. When our son’s bike chain wouldn’t stay put, I took the long route to a solution by learning the milling machine and building a chain tensioner on the Bridgeport. The RaspberryPi smart thermostat cost more in labor than a Nest, but we learned while making and it works completely to our own needs. It is often not the easiest path, but we have enough experience now to know that the effort of making a solution is almost always worth it over more convenient purchasing options. Start small, and soon your skills and effectiveness will improve with experience.

What is something that you’ve made that you’re really proud of?

This Fall, amidst pandemic concerns of every variety, we launched a small student project to connect local students with teens in South Africa, uniting them over their love of soccer. As a maker project this was ambitious: Our U.S. students were tasked with creating soccer balls, pumps, goals, and jerseys to send to their peers. At Global Camps Africa, four students in the Financial Literacy and Entrepreneurship Club Program were designing and making jerseys to send stateside. Using WhatsApp to communicate, students and instructors tentatively got to know each other and learn about life across the globe. Without a tutorial or much guidance at all to be found on how to make soccer balls outside of a factory, our students tried and failed and tried again until they succeeded in creating what are, in my biased opinion, some of the most gorgeous hand-sewn leather soccer balls ever made.

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Despite the additional challenges presented by the pandemic, we decided to move forward with an in-person project, not with reckless abandon for safety, but with recognition of the importance of education and the delicate balance between physical and mental health. We were influenced by parents reaching out, student chatter about school, and the lack of important social connections and tangible learning experiences that are the result of virtual schooling. The result was something that worked, and though every achievement owes some thanks to luck, I can’t help but be proud of what we accomplished. In a time when the education being offered by schools is arguably at its worst, our few students had a profound experience that they were thoroughly grateful for.

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Check out their informative process page to learn more about the project and replicate it in your own community HERE.

What is next on your project list?

A celebration! We are celebrating five years next month with an online auction of maker-made goods, which is a beautiful culmination and example of the way the community has built this space, and that this space is about the community. Adam and I work hard, having left behind better paying jobs for this life of purpose, but we wouldn’t be here without the makerspace members that maintain the culture of peer learning and support within our walls; the community partners that choose local collaborations with makers; and the partnerships with educators, other nonprofits, and business owners that allow us to reach and serve broader and diverse audiences. We are reflecting on five years of growth (the makerspace has tripled in physical size since we opened our doors in 2016), and each of us is making items and experiences to contribute to the fundraising auction alongside our members, instructors, and partnering makers in the community. You can find out more about their Anniversary Celebration and auction HERE.

What is something you’d like to work with but you haven’t yet?

There are so many mediums that I’m not done exploring and learning before I dive into something new. Like the giant stack of books I need to conquer before being tempted by another new release, the kiln fired glass hobby I’d like to take on will have to take a backseat for the time being. My focus when I do take on new projects is continuing to improve my skills and knowledge in the areas of the shop that I’m less familiar with. I think we both tend to bounce around a lot- spending a few weeks on a welding project and really focusing on those skills (mastering TIG welding, for example), but then we’ll move on and work in wood or plastic next. Our favorite projects are cross-discipline, which is one of the best things about a makerspace. I can build a wooden frame and wire the built in lighting for my stained glass piece and then machine the perfect picture hanging apparatus for the back. There are no limits to the exploration and motivation available in a shop that isn’t specialized.

Any advice for people reading this?

Join your local makerspace. You’ll grow, and as a result, help others grow.

If you want to help support the non-profit Vector Space and their community service, you can do so HERE via Nation of Makers. Contact Vector Space HERE and find out how you can participate in maker Faire Lynchburg HERE.

Discuss this article with the rest of the community on our Discord server!

Jennifer Blakeslee keeps the Global Maker Faire program running smoothly and has been a maker at Maker Faire since 2011. Among other things, she really likes to travel, write, cook, hike, make big art, and swim in the ocean.

View more articles by Jennifer Blakeslee


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