What do you do with an analog Wheatstone TV console once you’ve gone digital? If you’re like one Grand Rapids TV station, you donate it to the Geek Group. This non-profit group is focused on science, technology, engineering, math and arts education. It’s not really a school, nor a museum, and it’s not a university, yet it incorporates elements of all these environments.
The Geek Group takes the hands-on learning experience to the next level. Its format is similar to the Explorer Posts that flourished in the 1970s. Its members, largely students and members of skilled trades, work together in mentoring relationships on a wide variety of technology projects. Scattered around the Geek Group’s labs are robots, lightning machines, lasers and a variety of science and technology gear.
“We started out in 1994 as a group of Michigan college nerds doing hacker projects,” explains Chris Boden, the group’s president. “Fast forward 17 years, and the Geek Group has turned into a global organization.” With a diverse membership in all 50 states and 36 other countries, the Geek Group is operating at a scale previously unimagined. Growth is fueled by the group’s website, social networking, and hundreds of original educational videos broadcast on the web.
What originally began as lab-notes videos shot with a pocket camera has grown to a full soundstage with state of the art videography and viewership in the millions. The group is in the top 20 posters on YouTube, and has gathered about 3 ½ million hits to date.
As Boden notes, “The Wheatstone TV-600 console is a huge step up from the 6-channel rack mount mixer we had been using for our productions.”
In order to lighten the load and get the console upstairs, Boden carefully numbered and pulled all the modules from the mixer. He later posted a 24-minute video on YouTube describing the reassembly of the TV-600.
Following removal of labels and surface grime, the next step is wiring the console, and the Geek Group is assembling a team of local broadcast engineers and young volunteers to solder the numerous D connectors and wire the system into punch blocks. The TV-600 however, is part of a much larger media upgrade that Boden envisions for the Geek Group.
“We’ve got projects going on all over the building, in the plasma physics lab, robotics workshop, the CNC fab shop, everywhere. We want to wire all these spaces for audio and video so that we can produce programs that describe what a typical day is like around here.” A program might jump from one space to the next to track several projects at once.
To do that, the Geek Group needs a lot more gear, and is looking for donations from radio and TV stations to help equip its facilities both in Grand Rapids and across the country.
“A broadcaster’s trash is our treasure,” explains Boden. “Analog TV transmitters have become useless, but their power supplies can be used for high voltage physics labs. Klystrons are huge for us.”
Old ENG cameras are often discarded when their transports fail. “We can use them for live video feeds from spaces around the building,” adds Boden. Even tripods with broken legs are welcomed. The Geek Group can use the fluid heads. “We need to round up around 50 cameras to do video from anywhere in the building,” adds Boden.
All of this will help the group fulfill its mission of creating an environment where people can learn and explore. “So much of our culture celebrates being stupid,” laments Boden, “We want to create a space where it’s OK to be smart.”