Tinkerer, Engineer, Mr. Mom, Maker, Teacher

Maker News
Brian Wagner

Brian Wagner wears many hats as a maker

Brian Wagner has worn many hats in his life and they all seem to fit. He is an engineer, a maker, and a teacher of making and coding. He’s also one of the co-founders of the LVL hackerspace in Louisville, Kentucky, and he remains a member, even though he now lives in Florida, where he teaches at IMG Academy. He got a degree in EE and Computer science and worked in industry but then he decided to stay at home as a Mr. Mom for several years. Next he went into teaching, which was a good fit for him. During COVID, one of Brian’s projects was to create an online course (Code with Mr. Wagner) to teach coding specifically how to learn Python to create video games. Brian has that maker mindset for learning by doing, and he tries to share his skills and his enthusiasm with students. I’m happy to share his story with you. 

I want to welcome Brian Wagner. Brian, it’s good to see you and talk to you today. 

Brian: Thank you very much, Dale. It’s good to be here. It’s good to share my passion of making. 

Dale: To start off, let me just ask you, how would you describe yourself to someone else? Who are you, Brian?

I Wear a Lot of Hats

Brian: I have a lot of descriptions. I wear a lot of hats. I started out as an engineer, but I’m also a computer programmer, but I would say I’m mainly a teacher, teacher of tech stuff or making, tinkering, building, working with my hands. Again, I also am a programmer. I have this wide array of skills, anything from welding to coding in Java that I’ve built over these years. And I just love to share that with anybody who will listen, quite honestly, 

Dale: When did you pick them up, growing up? Did you pick up welding before you picked up coding? Did you pick up coding first and then get to welding? 

My Dad Bought an Apple II Computer

Brian: So there’s my story. Let’s see about 1979, a little bit post Star Wars when that came out, 79, 80, maybe. My dad bought a Apple II computer and brought it home and set it on a desk and encouraged me to figure it out. So myself and my best friend at the time, a fellow by the name of Jeff Gilbert, who actually works for Apple at this moment, He and I sat down. We wrote games and we typed code in at that time.

There was no Internet. There was no nothing. First off, we had to learn how to type. But second off, we would get these magazines, and these magazines had listings of code for games, so we would sit there and type them in, and of course they didn’t work, so we’d have to scratch our heads and figure it out. We just spent so much time doing that.

Everybody else was out playing baseball are riding their BMX bikes around. We were coding on the Apple 2 and listening to MTV when when there was music on MTV. These were the early days of of new wave music and, oh, it was great. Great times. I was, I would, I would say eighth grade, ninth grade, somewhere in there. 

Now, my parents tell me that I’ve always been building stuff. So I was always working with blocks or Legos or out in the wood shop or something like that. But I would put the beginnings of my making at when I first got that first computer.

Dale: And where was that? Where were you living? 

Brian: Houston, Texas at the time. I guess I should say this. My dad is an engineer and also a very avid ham radio buff. K5KG is his call. And he’s been doing that since 1955. Just how he got bit by the ham radio bug when he was in middle school, say, I got bit by the computer bug in early high school and late middle school.

Becoming an Engineer

Dale: You went on in college then to study engineering and computer science. 

Brian: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. 

Dale: Was that a decision? That’s what I really want to do? 

Brian: I absolutely knew that I wanted to be an engineer at that point.

And of course, my dad had been an engineer. So I went off to Vanderbilt to do mechanical engineering. Very quickly, I switched to electrical and computer science. It fit me a lot better. I really got the bug for doing embedded microprocessors. And this was back in let’s say 86, 87. We were doing embedded microprocessors as college sophomores, juniors, working with the 6502 chip, the 65HC11, some of those chips, this was before the Parallax stamp. This was long before the Arduino.

Sure. These you actually had to burn the EEPROM chips and then hook them all up and cross your fingers and hope they worked. And I remember spending just hours and hours in the engineering labs and staring at this. Of course also coding all this stuff in assembly language.

We really didn’t have a C compiler to do this. This was all assembly. And then that Parallax Stamp chip came out and suddenly you get Basic or the ability to do Basic on a microprocessor and connect an embedded computer to the world. It was fascinating.

I had always so many different ideas of things to do. And then after, I guess that Basic Stamp ruled the world for about 10 years or so before the before the Arduino took over. 

Dale: Yeah, it is interesting to think about, say, in 1980 version, what tools you had to work with. And relatively speaking, how few people could use those tools, right? 

Brian: Oh, absolutely. Bringing that that engineering lab down into the high schools and then to the middle schools and even elementary schools with the micro-bit. It’s just so much fun because children just have this natural inclination to play. And when you give them a tool that is very unique, say like a microprocessor, they take off and they have just such great ideas for what you can do with these.

Dale: When you’re talking about you and your friend around the Apple II, part of it is some innate curiosity like what is this about? What can it do? But part of it is also I want to do something with it, right? I want to create something of my own, right? And they come together there in an interesting way, don’t you think? 

Brian: Oh, absolutely. That’s what drives hackerspaces quite a bit is Hey, look what I’ve done. And then I’m going to pass that off to you. And then you try to one up me. I remember there were some other kids in my high school or in my middle school, high school, early years that were that were also trying to code games.

So we would write games. I wrote this little chicken game that ran across the screen and eggs were falling and you were trying to catch them. Then I would show it to like my middle school teachers and they were like just blown away and then another kid would go– Oh, that’s great but that’s like space invaders. Then they would go off and they would code something using my stuff to try to make it a little bit better. And if you go to a hacker space or makerspace, you see the same thing. Somebody codes up a LED strip and then the next thing you know, somebody has made some sort of a Halloween project.

Or whatever. As we were doing this, of course, our brains are like, yeah, we’re going to become like billionaires, just like everybody else. But that wasn’t the focus. The focus was just tinkering and playing around. Yeah. I remember pulling a Apple two apart and figuring out that the joystick part, you could put resistors in there and it would give you a value. So then suddenly, then you can deal with potentiometers and you figure out how the joystick works. And then you’ve realized that you could put a thermistor in there. And next thing you’re measuring temperature and it’s just, it’s just fascinating.

Of course I did burn up one Apple II doing that. And that was not a fun thing but, they popped the chip, put a new one in and off we went. It’s like the wild west of early eight-bit computing. 

Dale: So when you went to college and came out with an EE/ computer science degree, did you go into industry and get a job?

I was a Mr. Mom

Brian: I went into industry and ended up working at a nuclear power plant for about four years in Augusta, Georgia. I did that for about four years. My daughter was born. My wife was in medical school at the time, and we decided that the medical school was a better thing for us to be doing, so I actually quit my job. I was a Mr. Mom for five or seven years during that time, again, just at the cusp of the Internet. AOL was just coming to fruition. Everybody was trying to figure this out. At that point in time, I started doing freelance computer jobs, making websites where everything was completely hand coded. Long before CSS, long before HTML5 and any of the other buzzwords these days but a lot of fun and and really exciting.

I got to know a lot of the people who were running the ISPs in Chattanooga at the time. That was a really cool tech group that I would hang out with. 

Becoming a Teacher

Dale: How did you get into teaching? 

Brian: So I was a Mr. Mom for a while, and I was at home a lot, and it’s great to be a Mr. Mom, but the problem is you got all these other moms that are so nice to you. And you go to get coffee with them and they got their little kids and you got your little kids, but you never really feel like you’re part of that group. The real question was, I need to, I want to get back into a job. I always felt like teaching was kind of where I belonged. So this was about year 2000 or so. I took classes at the local University, you know teaching classes how to be a teacher that sort of thing. Then the next thing, I landed a job teaching at Kentucky Country Day School. This was about 2002 or so. Taught math for a year and then I taught computers, of course. So I would teach Real Basic, which was the max version of Basic at that time and taught some computer science because I love computer science. I love coding and taught computer applications. 

Dale: So I’m curious how you’ve seen that evolve, like the art of teaching coding during the last 20 years, right? It has gone from really Basic or in some ways to all kinds of visual programming today, all kinds of entry level approaches.

But I guess to start in one place there, I was interested, you, I think you described yourself to me once as a nerd, or self identified that way. And it’s one thing to find kids who really like computers and want to learn how to program. But I would guess at a Kentucky Country Day or another school, you want to teach the kids that aren’t inclined to be programmers, right?

Or at least reach them and it’s a bit like… Same problem with art, it’s one thing to teach a group of young kids who want to be artists, but it’s another thing to teach kids who struggle with the idea of doing art in any way, and you want to introduce them to it so they can appreciate it.

Brian: So first off, I realize that every kid’s not going to be a programmer, just like everybody’s not going to be an author or something like that. I think you can teach all kids to code, but I just don’t think it’s their thing. I don’t think it’s some kid’s thing.

But what my goal is… in teaching computer science and teaching computer science either at the middle school level or at the high school level or whatever, is I want to introduce it in such a way that, that they one, find it fun; two, they don’t find it that hard. They realize, gee, I can do this. This isn’t that scary. This isn’t that outside my box to be able to handle this. And three if they do latch on to it, then they have some foundation. They can go on to another class or they can go on to another thing and then go, that was fun. And I really enjoyed that. And I’m going to continue. 

I’m going to continue pursuing this. Personally, I feel like everybody should know at least some basics on coding because if you’re in Excel or something, you can do things like, if this cell is negative, then make it red, otherwise make it black or, there’s so many things in the world that with just a small little base knowledge of coding, you can absolutely do and do some really cool things.

Even say with what do I want to say? Home automation, if the temperature is above 75 degrees, then I want this fan to turn on and I want the lights to dim and I want to put on some Jimmy Buffett music. In other words I do believe that every kid should be at least introduced to coding, just like every kid should be introduced to, say cooking. 

Dale: And sometimes they use the term computational thinking, but just as you described, it’s like, how does a problem fit? Something you could solve with a computer, right? Like the temperature is at a certain degree and you want to take certain actions. So yeah, but so you were teaching for a number of years at Kentucky Country Day and somewhere along the line after that I ran into you at a Maker Faire in the Bay Area.

Starting LVL1 Hackerspace

Brian: Oh my gosh. So I must admit that was a life-changing part of my life was in in 2008. I think it was the second Maker Faire. Mark Endicott, the physics teacher at Kentucky Country Day, and I were fortunate enough to be able to fly from Kentucky to San Francisco for the Maker Faire.

When we checked into the hotel, it just happened to be where everybody from Make had checked into the hotel. The next thing you know, we were hanging out and talking to our tribe of makers. We go to the Maker Faire. It’s mind blowing, because there’s, of course, there’s all the stuff that everybody’s making, but of course there’s also these huge art things almost like installations, but more like mechanical contraptions that I guess a lot of the people take to Burning Man and then they show up at Maker Faire. But we met so many wonderful people including a few people from the NoiseBridge hackerspace in San Francisco. So anyway we took all these pictures. We were so excited. We come home and then it’s summer.

And then a little bit later, Mark and I were like let’s do something. And we found at the community college, there was a welding class. So we took a welding class and that was cool. A lot of fun. We built a a skeleton hand out of metal and fun stuff like that.

But we never really lost track of this whole notion of having a place to put our tools, a place to have a community workshop. So we started digging online about hacker spaces and we talked about apparently there was a German club out of Berlin 

Dale: Chaos Computer Club. 

Brian: Yeah. And they had a lot of information about how to start a hacker space. So Mark and I, we were like, okay let’s try to do this. We threw out a message on the Make magazine blog and we set up a place at a bar where we could have a table and in a back room. We go there and we’re like, yeah, nobody’s going to show up for this.

And we’re like it’s okay. We’ll just have a beer and move on. We got a dozen people that showed up the first time. And then the next time we ran a meeting, it was the next month. We maybe had 20 and then it grew. And then we’re like, our goal here is to have a place where we can have our table saw, and maybe a band saw, and tools and things like that, but we need to come up with some way to have enough money to put down rent. None of us have a lot of money.

So we all started chipping in 50 bucks a month, on this grand idea, which is fantastic. It’s crazy to be able to sell somebody on an idea that just doesn’t exist. They got to trust you somehow, but I guess I have a trustworthy face or something. So we did that for about six months or so and during that time, we also came up with structure –bylaws and, one of the biggest things that we did with LVL1 is we decided that we’re never going to do fundraising. We’re never going to take out loans. Whatever the members can support, that’s what we’re going to do. 

 Basically we set up a really good structure. And I’m proud to say, LVL1 is going strong and we’ve always run positive as far as money, and we made it through COVID without even blinking. 

Dale: So you found a space eventually, you had enough members to find a space. Is that the one on Broadway? 

Brian: That was the one on Broadway. It was really sketchy, but it was awesome. We saved up some more money. The first thing we bought was a couple of 3D printers. Good old MakerBots. We called them disappointment machines at the time because they halfway worked most of the time, and they were slow, but really it took off once we got the laser cutter. The first time we got the laser cutter, then everybody realizes that’s really the cool tool to have.

Dale: It is funny how the laser cutter is the workhorse of a space like that. 

Brian: Yeah, but I tell you what for kids. The workhorse for a makerspace for kids is the vinyl cutter, because kids will learn how to cut out a sticker to stick on their laptop or their lunch, but they don’t have lunch boxes, but on their notebook or something like that.

But it’s wonderful because it teaches them vector art. And once they get the vector art, then that can very easily transfer over to the laser. And then once they’re comfortable in two dimensions, they go to three dimensions with the 3D printer. 

Dale: Tell me LVL1 was the really the first makerspace in or hackerspace in Louisville. How did it grow and develop? 

Brian: Let’s see here. Basically it was in an old building. We got all of our tools in there. That was our initial thing. We’re like we need a place to put all of our tools and we need a place where we can work on this or work on that, but it very quickly stopped being about the tools and quickly became about the people. Part of our meetings, we always had a show and tell at the end of the meetings where somebody would come up and they’d say, here, look, I built this duck and then somebody else would come up and they would say that’s great, but why don’t we put some feet on that duck? And then the next person would be, wouldn’t it be great if it had a hat?

And by having those show and tell meetings, you ended up with a lot of people connecting over similar projects. Specifically I can think of one project that was huge in that early space. That was run by a fellow by the name of Dan Bowen. But basically he convinced a lot of people in LVL1 that we wanted to fly a balloon across the Atlantic Ocean. Those engineers, they just went to town designing that thing. Now, ultimately, I don’t think they ever made it across the Atlantic. But they sure had a good time building and coming up with ideas. Ultimately Dan ended up going off to Google and working for Project Loon. He’s out in San Francisco somewhere. But those were great times. 

A little bit later, we grew out of that space and ultimately, we moved to a better space for us that was across town. That was a really hard thing to do was to move everything, but we got through that and and now we definitely have our home and hopefully we’ll never leave that one. But if we do then we’ll just we’ll pick it up and go somewhere else.

Dale: How many members approximately? 

Brian: About 80, I think. Actually, I’m still a member, but I’m down here in Florida, so I haven’t been there in a couple of years. But I keep paying dues. I don’t know why that is. I have such a love for that place. Again, it’s not about the tools. It’s about the people that are there. And it’s about that, that, that camaraderie and that enjoyment of building and enjoyment of working together. It’s like a golf club, but we just don’t play golf, 

Dale: I feel that way a lot about Maker Faire. It’s just I’ve got to meet such great people that I wouldn’t have met, if it wasn’t for having that event. How would you else find these people even? To know that they live in your community. To see what they do and what they’re interested in and learn from them. It’s a wonderful thing. 

Brian: Yeah, exactly. And we’re we pull those people out of their basements where they’ve been tinkering for 20 years and then suddenly their eyes light up and they can show off these things and it’s fantastic. 

Making and Coding

Dale: How do you see making and coding? Or how do you see them all fitting together? You’re a person that does both –the tinkering and the making and the coding. 

Brian: I see coding as just being another skill. Coding is no different than being able to use the bandsaw or coding is no different than being able to use the soldering iron.

It’s just another skill that one can learn. Yeah. I think people are initially turned off from coding for the same reason they get turned off from math. They decide early on that it’s too scary, too difficult, too whatever. I live by a I don’t know if a motto or maybe a mantra of a sort of a growth mindset.

And this is a very education sort of based thing. I think it was Carol Dweck who came up with this whole growth mindset where instead of saying, I don’t know how to code, you say, I don’t know how to code yet, or I don’t know how to solder, or I don’t know how to solder yet.

Dale: But I could learn.

Brian: I think you can train yourself into realizing that you as a human are completely capable of just about everything if you give yourself the permission to say, I may not know that but I’m going to learn it and I can figure it out. There are so many resources out these days, everything from Make magazine to YouTube videos, to teachers. In ham radio, it’s Elmer’s. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that term, but an Elmer is somebody who teaches you ham radio, and it’s usually the guy who lives down the street with the ham radio stuff. That’s like the first thing that I put into my kids brains when I teach school is this whole notion of having a growth mindset.

Dale: It’s learning those skills, but practicing them in a community of people that share that mindset is really special, right?

It’s you’re not just doing this alone, or you’re not just learning it because school demanded that you learn it, but you’re doing something and you’re doing it with other people. You it’s exciting to be part of that. 

Brian: I do agree with that. There’s definitely a human need to connect. If you have something that’s interesting to you and you can connect with another person that finds that same thing interesting, magic happens. 

Dale: Eventually you decide to leave Kentucky Country Day. Was that around COVID? 

Brian: Yeah. Unfortunately I lost my wife about that time. So I moved down to Florida and and I learned how to play pickleball. I didn’t know how to play pickleball yet. 

Dale: It’s required.

The Teaching Bug

Brian: Yeah, I think it is. I think it’s a requirement. So I played pickleball for a while, but I got bored. Just the same, the teaching bug, once you’re a teacher, you’re always a teacher and the teaching bug bit me and I took a job teaching robotics at IMG Academy and I also work very closely with the teacher who is running the makerspace there so we get to work with all the same tools, and encourage all the kids to learn new skills and everything from Tinkercad and 3D printing to laser work laser cutting and soldering. And you know that I’m going to be throwing some coding in there too, because I do believe in that. 

Dale: These are kids, many of them are elite athletes in a particular sport, isn’t that their background?

Brian: Yes, absolutely. Some of these kids are are world-class tennis players, basketball players, football players, but you know what? They are absolutely capable of soldering and learning this stuff and if I get my way, maybe I can help some of them become engineers. Or at least realize that, Hey, if my car’s not working, maybe I can watch this YouTube video and figure out how to put in this new switch or sensor or something like that. That’s my goal is to show them that you can figure this stuff out and it’s fun. It gives you a nice warm feeling. 

Code with Mr. Wagner

Dale: Tell us about Code with Mr. Wagner. That’s another project you started, I think, during COVID. 

Brian: It’s CodeWithMrWagner.com, here’s my little pitch. Basically, I love to teach people how to code. And I’ve noticed that a lot of the online coding courses out there, they’re like exercise based okay, here, we’re going to learn an if statement, so I want you to write five if statements and how this works.

That gets really boring really quickly. What I did in my class and what I’ve taught in previous years is how to do classic video games, how to code those. Say for instance the game Pong. Pong has a game loop and every frame in the game loop, the ball moves just a little bit and you use keyboard events to move the paddles up and down and you use collision events to see when the ball hits the paddle and then the ball bounces back. The beauty of this is you teach the same things. You teach logic and variables and if statements and loops and functions and lists. There’s only a half a dozen different things that is common to every coding language, but if you teach those individually, unfortunately, it’s not very engaging as a student.

But if you’re building a game then you’re seeing it come to life in front of your hands and by the way, I’m sneaking in, here’s how to use an if statement. Or I’m sneaking in a little list or a loop or something like that. And I’ve had really good success with students learning this way, both in teaching school and and with Code with Mr. Wagner. I got a nice community that’s really shaping up. And just the same as I had a hackerspace where people could share their ideas and things like that, I have a group online, a Facebook group online where people are showing off their little bits of code; here’s my enhancement to the Pong game, or here’s my enhancement to the Breakout game. 

Dale: It’s a bit like the chicken game you created when you were young. It’s, you learn this kind of template or pattern for a game, and you could easily modify it, right? You could easily begin to say, oh that’s how a Pong game works, and I could do different things with it just to play within that like Sandbox, 

Brian: Oh, absolutely. And you’ll see that. You’ll see that among computer games. Let’s face it like Centipede and Breakout and Space Invaders, they’re all more or less the same game, they’re just a variation of it. When you get up into 3D games, you get your side scroller games like Mortal Kombat or something, but there’s a lot of side scroller games.

Mortal Kombat is actually very similar to Mario. Then you’ve got your 3D games where you got Quake and Doom, which are not a whole lot different than Call of Duty and Fortnite, so you learn one, and then it’s just a matter of tweaking. Once you, as a teacher, have gotten a student to understand how one works, then the world opens up for them, 

Dale: I keep thinking that, some of the analogies to, to making and other things with coding is a bit, like using cooking as an analogy. You learn one recipe, you modify that, you learn a class of recipes, you learn to cook pork. And then you say beef is similar, right?

The techniques, it’s just, you begin to learn from experience doing these things. The more curious you are, it helps you tackle these things. And, yeah, you might make mistakes along the way, but it’s part of learning how to do it. 

Brian: I don’t know how to cook yet. Again, I have that growth mindset. I’m going to throw that in there. 

Dale: What I think is interesting say a cooking recipe or Make project instructions, they’re procedures. It’s how to do something in sequence. And essentially code is that, right? As and you have some other features that, that make it really interesting, but it essentially is what are the steps that I go through to solve a problem or to create a game.

Brian: Another thing that I always teach my students is to break a big problem down into little problems. Like for instance, with say the Breakout game that’s in Code with Mr. Wagner, we start by just getting a window on the screen, and then the next thing you know, you change the color of the screen to black, and then you get the little paddle down below, and then you get the ball, and then you get the ball bouncing, and then you put some bricks, and then you get all the bricks up. It’s like you’re just building one step at a time until it’s all done. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

Dale: I was just impressed that you did this, with “Code with Mr. Wagner.” In many ways, other teachers could be doing this, right?

Brian: Oh, absolutely. As a teacher, the support is out there where you can absolutely build your own courses and sell them. I can tell you creating videos. My early videos were cringeworthy. The audio wasn’t good. The lighting wasn’t good. It’s another skill.

I view it almost like learning how to solder, learning how to code. It was like a whole other thing. That I had no idea how to do. I’d never done video editing but by gosh, I could sit down and figure it out. I could watch YouTube videos. I could, buy somebody else’s course and watch how they did it.

Dale: It’s a small secret, but if you’re willing to put the time in, you can learn it, right? You can’t just skip the time and then just suddenly acquire it. It’s like video editing’s hard. But if you do it and do it, you’ll get better at it and you’ll eventually feel like you have some confidence in doing it right.

Brian: Oh, absolutely. And it was one step at a time and I just sat there and I worked at it and I learned it and I enjoyed it. And now, I’m not ready to like edit the next Star Wars movie or something like that. But I can sure as heck get a video up there that looks as good as anybody else’s.

I got some more tricks. I can tell you the hardest thing about the Code with Mr. Wagner was learning about marketing. Marketing has always been such a foreign thing to me. So I really had to figure out how is it that, that you get people to to buy into what you’re selling and to trust you and to understand what their pain points are why they might like to buy this particular product. But yet again, it’s just another skill and you spend the time and you work at it and you can do it.

Dale: Brian, thank you for your time today. I appreciate catching up with you and getting the full story and sharing that with other people. Thanks for what you’re doing. 

Brian: Thank you. I really appreciate your time. I really appreciate telling my story and I just want everybody to get out there and go make something. 

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty