Skateboard Project

Coach Tay, mentor, Adam Spontarelli, Instructor, and three Empowerment Students ready to skate.

This Spring five teens from the Empowerment Academy, an alternative education environment for Lynchburg City Schools students in need of credit recovery, SOL support, and/or specialized academic assistance, spent three hours each week building skateboards at Vector Space. 

Now one does not just walk into a makerspace, even one as well-equipped as ours, and whip out a skateboard. No, these students spent the first four weeks of the project welding together a hydraulic press and pouring a concrete skateboard mold. While boards were being pressed, we skipped ahead to designing the graphics. Students built a custom screen printer and used the vinyl cutter to cut designs created in vector graphics software (Inkscape). Once boards were glued and pressed, it was time to cut them into a skateboard shape on the bandsaw, route and sand the edges, screen print the boards, apply grip tape, and attach trucks, bearings, and wheels. Ta da! Twelve weeks later each student was ready to give their boards a test run at the Riverside Skate Park. Helmets and boards in hand, students walked down to the skatepark followed by a visit to Scene3 boardshop. 

With our press already built, Vector Space will be offering a one-week summer camp in July for students to press, design, print, and assemble their own board. Check out the registration page here:

Lynchburg Computer Club Announcement

We're launching a computer club this June. To find details and register for our first meeting, click here. If you find yourself on this page long after June 2019, look for future meetings on our Event listing page. You can also sign up for the Computer Club email list at the right. All are welcome.

What is this?

The Lynchburg Computer Club meets twice a month at Vector Space to share technical ideas and experiences in a variety of computational fields among people from a variety of backgrounds. The first Wednesday of the month is a talk on a topic that spans the Venn diagram of electronics, computing, and mathematics, ranging from fundamental knowledge as old as Jacquard’s loom, to bleeding edge technologies. The second meeting of the month is on a Saturday morning (the date of which is announced at the first meeting) and is an informal meetup for people to casually talk about similar topics and work on projects together. Think of it like a Brazilian Samba School that values computation. It’s a chance to get outside your bubble and to see how others use computers to solve problems found in industry, academia, government, and the home lab.

There are few places in the country with as much brain power per hectare, yet still small enough to drive across town during your lunch break. Let’s take advantage of this opportunity and bring something unique to Lynchburg. Tell the boss your new knowledge will double profits (it won’t).

These talks are put on by people like you. People with specialized experience in computing who can share that experience with a general audience. So please take the time to put in as much as you get out, volunteer to give a talk.

How Does This Help Lynchburg?

What does a group of typically highly paid and highly educated people nerding out over computers do for our city? Well first of all, communicating with knowledgeable people from a variety of fields in informal settings to discuss technical topics is a guaranteed way to expand the knowledge of the participants. Smarter and more connected professionals help our community thrive, which hardly needs to be explained. But instead of highlighting what this does for professionals, I want to focus on the benefits a group like this will have for the whole community.

If you observe a class in your local school, you'll see that computers aren't being used the way professionals use them; as tools to solve problems, to bring our creative ideas to life, or as tools for computation. Instead, they serve as test taking apparatus, a more efficient means of drilling exercises and testing than can be done with paper. And that's it. With the exception of a select few students taking specialized classes in high school, the only computer programming being done is as Seymour Papert put it, "using the computer to program the kid". And the effect is clear, there's a cultural phobia of computers that undoubtedly stems from a lack of understanding. It was true when Papert said those words in 1980, and it's every bit as true today. It's reflected through the public's understanding of computers and in the declining rate of completed computer science degrees.

Even without a visit to the schools or a deep dive into the data, you've probably had a glimpse of the problem while inside the walls of your institution. The new hires look every bit the same as you do, the only difference being that they seem so much less prepared than you were. Same people, less knowledge. I know, it's a cliche, romanticizing past generations and criticizing the new, including the easy target of our schools. But when we work behind closed doors, whether it's in the office or in our basements, our progress is only visible to those already in the know. To everyone else, you and the things you're working on don't exist. It's not that the public doesn't want to care, it's that we don't even give them the chance to care. They don't understand what we're doing, we don't tell them, so they go on not asking or caring, and the cycle continues, attracting the same select few that just happened by chance to be exposed to the field in a positive way.

If we want people to treat computers like we do, then we need to show them how it's done, we need to lead by example in a public setting and invite others to see. This is a major motivation for Vector Space in general, as this issue of hidden work is certainly not a problem unique to computing. The stereotypes of who does woodworking, sewing, metal work, etc. are well known and unlikely to change if they continue to happen in a vacuum, where skills never transfer to anyone different, they simply pass down through families and sometimes close friends. I've only chosen computers as my focus for this particular club because I so thoroughly enjoy them, and because I have a strong urge to help shape their cultural understanding and value.

If you want to see change like I do, this is your chance. You may think it's small, but if you, the computer scientists and enthusiasts, aren't willing to share your passion, then nothing will change. Because right now, the people who are willing to come out of their caves and share what they know rarely have your background, they aren't able to see or articulate the importance of this thing you know so dearly.

The ingredients for making Lynchburg a thriving community of intellectual thought are here: people with knowledge, from a variety of industries and academic fields, living in an easily navigable, small city, with a low cost for innovation, and access to what I believe (clearly with bias) is the perfect venue for bringing such people together.



National Rocketry Contest

Five teens participating in a rocketry program at Vector Space are national finalists in the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The Final Fly-Off is at Great Meadows in The Plains, Virginia on Saturday, May 18, 2019. There, 102 teams from around the country will compete for more than $100,000 in cash and prizes, the title of National Champion, and the honor of representing the United States at the International Rocketry Challenge in Paris, France from June 19 - 23, 2019.

The Vector Space team is lead by National Association of Rocketry member Mark Miller and Vector Space Director of Education Adam Spontarelli, and is one of only four teams in Virginia to qualify. Nationally 830 teams competed to attend the finals, with 76 of those teams from Virginia. Students have spent more than forty hours designing, building, and modifying their rocket each week at Vector Space since February. They spend Sundays at Sweet Briar College, test launching their rocket and recording flights, making note of needed adjustments. “This competition is designed to be a scaled down version of an actual aerospace payload mission”, says Miller, “it teaches the students about all the factors which can affect their flight and what is required in order to accomplish the mission.”

In order to prepare for the national finals, the team has extended their program and brought on former NASA astronaut and STEAM education advocate Leland Melvin as a sponsor and supporter. With Melvin’s support the team will purchase more motors and igniters for their rockets, acquire team uniforms, and make the trip to Northern Virginia in May.

The Vector Space team consists of high school students from around the area: William Jeon, Jefferson Forest; Zachary Wesbrook and Ian Hanrahan, homeschooled; Dustin Thomas, Cornerstone Christian Academy; and Savijon Hunter, E.C. Glass.

The Team America Rocketry Challenge is the world’s largest student rocket contest and a key piece of the aerospace and defense industry’s strategy to build a stronger U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), the Team America Rocketry Challenge was created in the fall of 2002 as a one-time celebration of the Centennial of Flight, but by popular demand became an annual program.

Fashion + Tech Project Recap

In January 2019 ten teen girls interested in fashion design and unfamiliar with computer programming were introduced to the world of possibilities afforded by the ability to code during our Fashion + Tech project sponsored by Best Buy. Students learned technical skills in the areas of electronics, using microcontrollers and Python to allow their garments to interact with the real world. With sensors as inputs and lights as outputs, each student saw that computer programming can bring to life ideas that before seemed only fantasy.

In addition to the tangible skills gained, students saw how two traditionally separate industries, fashion and technology, can come together to revolutionize not only those two fields, but can impact additional areas such as healthcare, public awareness, athletics, and more. They learned that when people with diverse backgrounds - be that education, experience, race, class, or otherwise - come together, new and important accomplishments can be achieved.

Furthermore, this project not only bridged the gender gap for these ten females in computer programming, but put them far ahead of the majority of their male counterparts of the same age. This unique experience has given ten girls an advantage in a male-dominated field at a time in their lives when they can easily pursue a path and will no doubt have successful experiences in computer science should they choose to do so.

The final product of this project was not just the ten garments and ten accessories created by the students, but a public runway show where the students modeled their outfits. While nervous to present their work in front of such a large crowd, the students were clearly thrilled with their accomplishments and did an amazing job from design to implementation of their ideas. This was not a cohesive runway collection, but ten unique looks that reflected each individual student. Some of the ideas that students brought to life in their garments included a set of green lights with one blue light every 1,000 units, to represent the the genetic anomaly she was born with. Another included a microphone and set her lights to change with the music played during the runway show. A third used a real time clock to synchronize the lighting of two neopixel rings with the visibility of the actual sun and moon. I could go on: there are seven more unique examples, each of which students had complete creative freedom and ownership over. The impact of that alone - making a project of your own creation - is profound.

Congratulations to our Fashion + Tech project students, and thank you to our many collaborators and of course Best Buy, who made this program possible!


Botteau Wrap-up

How Far did your Autonomous Boat Sail?


Our goal was to build a boat that could autonomously sail itself from Lynchburg to Richmond along the James River. That’s roughly 150 miles of winding river fraught with narrow passes, dams, jagged rocks, loose branches, and bridge pillars among many other obstacles. And after roughly 70 hours of work spread over 5 months, our boat (Botteau), on it’s longest attempt, made it 300 yards down river. Needless to say we came up short. Really short. Here’s why, and what we learned from our experience.

Boats are simple. They’re just objects that weigh less than the water they displace. It’s factually true, but it turns out that like most things, the details of implementation are much more complex. And while our initial ideas weren’t quite this naive, there were a number of boat building details we underestimated.


The first was size constraint. Our primary consideration when sizing the boat was buoyancy. We weighed all of the components that needed to ride in the boat, determined the depth of draft we wanted the boat to have, then calculated the volume of water our boat profile needed to displace. Thanks to Archimedes, we were incredibly close with this calculation, ending up with a draft depth within half of an inch of our target. What we failed to consider; however, was the practical challenge of fitting two motors, 35 pounds of wheelchair batteries, and a computer accompanied by various electronic components inside the boat. Once everything went it, it was impossible to access the motors, and the batteries never came back out. So when the connections between our batteries came loose, we never knew it, and when we burned out three different motors, we had to cut through our fiberglass hull in order to replace them. It wasn’t the failures that caught us off guard, just the amount of time necessary to fix them.


The second major design flaw was the location of the fins and the instability that resulted. Fish have fins on the rear, and so do most boats. So why would we deviate from what works? When a boat propels itself through water, the water drags on the surface of the boat, producing a force that pulls toward the rear of the boat agaist the thrust force that pushes forward. As long as these two forces don't oppose one another around the boat’s moment of inertia (the point about which it spins), the boat remains stable. And this is how most boats function. The problem was that our boat was designed for energy efficiency. Even with 40 amp hours of battery life and a 100 watt solar panel, we knew that our batteries would risk being completely drained every day, so we decided to use as little energy as possible, so when the boat wasn’t at risk of crashing into an obstacle, we decided we’d cut power to the motors and let the river carry our vessel. The problem comes when the water starts moving faster than the boat, causing the drag force to change direction, making the configuration unstable, sending the boat into a spin from which it struggled to regain control.


Then came electronics. And in this realm it wasn’t so much the computation that set us back, but the basic electrical components that served as the boat’s drive train. These were the batteries, voltage regulators, computer, and motors. And among these four major components, one way or another, we destroyed them all. The batteries were damaged by leaking water and short circuits, the computer was destroyed by connecting the batteries backwards, the voltage regulators and motors fried and melted their wires by drawing more power than we expected, in their tight, enclosed, very warm space. When your most expensive budget item is destroyed beyond repair before the boat ever touches water, it’s tough to start over again. But we did. We migrated everything not just to a new computer, but to a completely different architecture (Jetson to Raspberry Pi), requiring that we rewrite our code with completely different libraries for GPS navigation, LIDAR range finding, motor and servo control, wifi communication, temperature monitoring, and camera operation (along with the need for interfacing with a new physical camera).


Our focus was on computation. It was the aspect that made this project unique and innovative. We thought it would be the greatest source of difficulty, but it turned out that we were wrong. It was the more fundamental aspects, well understood by boat builders and electrical engineers, that challenged us the most. Although that’s not to say that the code was easy. Teaching a computer to differentiate water from land is no easy task, and frankly, our 8th grade student’s implementation was impressive. The image on the right shows how it worked. The top image was the original taken by the camera on top of our boat, just below is the filter applied by the computer, and on the top left is the resulting instruction for which direction to turn the boat, along with confidence values that the left, center, and right sections of the image contain an obstacle (lower numbers are more likely to be obstacles).


So after months of work and repeated setbacks, we found ourselves at our favorite boat ramp, an all too familiar meeting spot, ready to deploy our boat on another test voyage. Except we noticed that the weather had changed. We had gotten used to the hundred degree temperatures on all those summer days at the river, and now here we were in October, no other kayakers in sight, and none of us thrilled at the idea of getting in the water. So despite knowing we weren’t ready, we agreed to make it our last attempt, cut the tether and let our boat go. And off it went, like sending your child to his first day of kindergarten, it took off, and there we were proud and excited. It didn’t even look back, it just sailed as it was born to do. And just when we thought it might really work, the boat suddenly lost its heading, the nose pointed toward the shore, and it slowly drifted aimlessly until finally being grounded among sticks and mud. Determined to figure out what went wrong, I took to the water, more treading mud than swimming, until I was finally able to reach the boat and tow it back to the ramp. We took it back to Vector Space for diagnosis and found that the computer had simply crashed, a regular run of the mill kernel panic, and one that we had seen multiple times before. And though we had more than one idea on how to prevent it from happening again, realizing that the show can go on forever, we decided it was time to accept defeat, and honorably retired Botteau to the ceiling of Vector Space, where it hangs today.


We often caution students at Vector Space that failure is an option. This isn’t an indication of inability or a suggestion to shy away from challenge, it’s a reminder that interesting and ambitious things are not easily accomplished, by anyone. Simply showing up and putting in the hours might be a winning recipe for completing worksheets or finishing chores, but it’s no guarantee that your boat will sail or that your rover will land safely on Mars. For many, it’s an idea that’s difficult to accept. Few of us were raised to deal with failure, myself included. But why not? What’s the alternative? To not even try? To only take on the things we can knowingly succeed in? Ask these students if they would have rather spent their time in any other way and I think you’ll find a common theme throughout their responses. Regardless of how far their boat sailed, they accomplished things they never imagined they could, made friendships and memories that will last a lifetime, and experienced an adventure unlike any other.


The Autonomous Boat Project was sponsored by Cognizant’s Making the Future Grant.


Tormach CNC Mill

We have a new toy! Thanks to a generous contribution from the Al Stroobants Foundation, Vector Space is the proud new home of a Tormach PCNC 440 desktop mill. Make: boasts that the Tormach "cuts metal like butter," and we're eager to try it out.

How it works

So what is a CNC mill? We have a manual Bridgeport mill at the space, which isn't going anywhere, and this is a computer controlled version of the same type of machine. A mill is used to take a piece of [usually metal] stock and cut away at it to create what you need. Known as subtractive manufacturing, you start with more material than you need and carve away at it- usually with fine detail and precision- until you have a functional metal part. A mill looks a lot like a drill press, the difference being the three-axis bed that moves around so that you can do more than just cut holes. 

For the Tormach, designs are created using 3D CAD/CAM software like Fusion 360, which are then sent to the mill for cutting. For technical specs on the PCNC 440, check out this page:


What are we going to make with this beauty? Parts for auto and hobby, engraving or customizing glass and metal items, jewelry, art, and of course: combat robots. In the Fall Vector Space will offer a chance for teens to try out the CNC mill as they make their own three-pound robot, complete with weapon and ready for battle at the next Hill City Robot Combat event.

Stop by soon or activate your membership now to learn about and utilize this powerful new machine!


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