Eleven-year-old Brittney Wiebe inspects a Wall-E toy as it rolls across her workshop space. Like any kid, she appears to be playing with a toy and smiling when it does something unexpected.
Except this is not a conventional classroom, it’s the Edmonton New Technology Society (ENTS) building, and Wiebe isn’t just playing with the toy, she’s hacking into it and changing its functions, making it turn its head, move its arms and walk backwards.
Linda Mahoney, an ENTS member and IT consultant, introduced Wiebe to the group in 2010. “She calls it ‘geek heaven,'” Mahoney says about Wiebe, the youngest honorary member of the society located on the second floor of a nondescript white plaza behind Grant MacEwan University.
In 2009, four friends with backgrounds in information technology and farming scouted out the upper level of a former clothing factory on 114th Street. They put up walls, installed electrical cords, updated the lighting and took apart a conveyor belt system that ran through the entire floor. They used the machine’s materials for other projects.
Group members pay a low tuition, just $50 a month, or less if they’re a “starving hacker” or student. Though most of the learning is done through trial and error and member-to-member instruction, the facility does offer classes in some areas.
Michael Kulpa, the society’s president, says this kind of on-site learning and accessibility to knowledge is exactly why the society’s 50 members keep coming back. Group members even helped to build the 3,800-square-foot headquarters, where they come and go at their convenience and use the facility’s expensive tools, whether it is to measure voltages with an oscilloscope, weld or woodwork. There’s also a focus on keeping up with new technology.
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Jesse Dean, a 29-year-old technical analyst, works with a 3-D printer he built, refined, and re-built. Called a RepRap, it can bring digital designs to a plastic reality. It works like a normal printer, hooked up to his laptop, but instead of discharging ink, it releases layers of melted plastic that solidify into coat hangers, bracelets and even parts that can be used to build more RepRaps, kind of the technological equivalent of cloning.
“You might not be able to give one to your grandma today and have her print tea cups,” says Dean. “But, eventually, I think you’ll find the printers in most households.”
He built his RepRap with a kit he purchased online for $500, highlighting the value of open-source technology and accessibility to knowledge imbued by ENTS.