Level UP: inside Chicago's mall-based teen makerspace

In 1947, the Tucker Car Corporation opened shop at the Dodge Chicago Plant, the one-time world's largest building located on the city's southwest side, a stone's throw from Midway Airport. Half a decade before, construction workers lovingly nicknamed the site "Hitler's Headache," a title it earned for being the birthplace of most of the engines for World War II's B-29 bombers. After Tucker's notoriously brief tenure, Ford took over, again devoting the massive structure to the construction of military aircraft, this time for the Korean War. Look to the left of the entrance when you arrive at Level UP's subterranean storefront, and you'll spot a model of Tucker's 1948 Sedan sitting atop a glass case. Jackie Moore keeps the little burgundy Tucker "Torpedo" for some small sense of history of the space her program occupies. "You know they made these right here," she explains, holding a plastic version of Tucker's stillborn dream. "All 51 of them."

Level UP is located in the basement beneath the food court of the Ford City Mall, a sprawling shopping center that opened up on the lot in 1965, borrowing its name from the third car company to take up residence here. Once upon a time, these underground tunnels housed cafeterias and machine classes for factory workers. These days, however, this particular wing stands more as a testament to the state of the American shopping mall in the early 21st century. Down here, there's a hairstylist and shop devoted to eastern herbal remedies, but not much else to speak of beyond employee locker rooms and several empty storefronts. Moore apologizes for the mess when we first arrive. It's clearly a well-loved space, with various tools of the trade scattered all over the tables and floor. Nearly every wall in the converted storefront is papered with writing -- charts, diagrams and instructions for tinkering with electronics.

In the middle of the space is a strange four-wheeled vehicle, with exposed circuitry and a small chute with a spinning wheel that sends Frisbees flying at high speeds. On a nearby table sits a huge orange Pac-Man-shaped cutout on wheels and a nearly finished CNC machine. There are a number of deconstructed Roomba-like iRobot open-source platforms, including two that serve as the base for anthropomorphic banana and grape characters built from PVC piping that are, admittedly, a bit worse for wear. Toward the front, beneath the Tucker Torpedo, is a glass case loaded with trophies and certificates from competitions with names like Botball, all testaments to the work that goes on here. Jackie Moore has devoted this space and her life to teaching kids how to build robots.

This video originally appeared in Engadget Show episode 44.

"My mother was an advertising window dresser," explains Moore, beginning the rather lengthy process of introducing herself. "So there [were] always things around the house to make stuff with. We grew up disadvantaged. We made stuff we didn't have. So I'm accustomed to improvising." Working with her hands prepared Moore for a career in the IT world, much of her adult life devoted to troubleshooting information systems for large corporations. "And for release, I just made things for fun," she adds with a smile. "I was actually a balloon decorator for a while. I created balloon sculptures -- elaborate columns and walls. I also created some personalized books. I did things for the fun of it while I was working as a relief from the stress-filled technical job that I had."

Moore is also a mother of four, her oldest 35 and youngest 18. "I became very active in the school system as a result of that," she explains. "I discovered the disparity of the different schools, [and] decided that I needed to take charge of my kids' education. There were some other like-minded parents we worked with. We did all the typical PTA-type stuff. But because my background was technology, I also did technology fairs and internet security-awareness fairs -- just workshops and such. There came a point where we came to the conclusion that we need to spend our time focusing on the kids instead of the schools." The team of concerned parents formed Agape (Advocates for Giftedness and Parental Empowerment) Werks, a name stenciled on dollies and various other pieces of equipment scattered about the Level UP space.

Level UP Chicago's mallbased teen maker space

With time, Agape's focus took shape, owing a good deal to Moore's technical background. "We discovered robotics, and it took over a good portion of activities we did because it answers so many of the problems that we were trying to address," says Moore. "It was cross-disciplinary. It was hands-on. The kids owned the learning. It gave them a problem that is larger than themselves, and it forced them to use what they learned in other areas. And it forced them to want to learn something else." With that, Moore and Agape gave birth to the Chicago Knights, a team of high school-aged roboticists who travel the country, taking part in competitions like the autonomous Botball and FIRST Robotics. And Level UP became the team's home base.

"Level UP was really envisioned as an outreach spot for our robotics team," says Moore of the teen makerspace. "Our robotics team travels around the city quite a bit going to other places exposing kids to robotics and to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) systems, but it's time-consuming and costly. Level UP was opened up so we can have a spot where we can do outreach events in one place and tell people to come see us here, and also it's a way for us to be discovered by those who happen to be in the mall." And while theirs isn't the most heavily trafficked space in Ford City, all who pass by stop and take a look, in attempt to figure out precisely what's going on behind the "Teens Only" sign that graces the storefront. It's been a successful ploy. Level UP has attracted a community of young and eager makers every bit as diverse as Chicago itself, many traversing the city through epically long public transportation runs to participate in after-school learning.

Level UP Chicago's mallbased teen maker space

"Although the kids are primarily from sixth grade through 12th grade, they come from all over the city," says Moore. "We consider ourselves a borderless program. So anyone who can come to us, is willing to come to us, we open the doors and welcome them in. Some of the students -- they run the gamut from kids who have been identified as being autistic to being identified as highly gifted and everything in between. They're educated in different academic settings: public school, parochial schools, we've had home school students, independent schools, and for the child who's one of our autistic students, even a day school. The one thing they seem to have in common is they want to make something with their hands."

Walk through these doors as a high school student, and you're already a part of the team, asked to participate in some ongoing project, with a more veteran team member tasked with helping you learn the ropes. "You'll be dropped in the middle of whatever's going on," says Moore. "You could expect that you will not be bored. You can expect that you will be challenged, and on the very first visit, someone will put something in your hands and say, 'I need you to help me do this.' And the typical reaction is, 'What am I suppose to do with this?' and generally if they ask me that, I'll point to another student and say, 'Help him out with that,' and I'll walk away. What that does is that it takes away the stigma of not knowing because there's no teacher to please. There's no adults determining whether or not you're doing it right or wrong. It's just a peer, you know, someone your own age who's going to help you through the process."

There's no hand-holding here, no special privileges. It's just a room full of Chicago teens teaching one another the vocabulary of electronic components and programming languages, making the best of the limited resources afforded to an after-school program on the outskirts of one of America's biggest cities. Level UP didn't have the funding to afford a CNC machine for future projects, so Moore tasked the kids with building one. "One group of students worked on assembling the structure; another group worked on the electronics; and a third group worked on getting the Linux installed and retrofitting the old computer," says Moore, motioning to the blue structure on a nearby table. "And we moved them around from time to time. Even on building this structure, we were able to put them into separate groups so that even if one's working on the left, one's working on the right ... What they did is that even though it's one project, everybody has something that they owned that they can say, 'I did this,' and 'I was part of the bigger picture.'"

Level UP Chicago's mallbased teen maker space

This afternoon, the team is fixing up a trio of robots to bring to an After School Matters event, a gathering of extracurricular clubs held at a nearby high school. The big orange cardboard robot is "Snack-Man," built on a Tetrix platform, with a Lego Mindstorms microcontroller at its helm, tasked with gobbling up the duo of fruit 'bots seated atop iRobot's Create discs. The fruit, says Moore, promotes healthy eating -- part of a healthy lifestyle that also includes, naturally, dancing robots. "Michelle Obama had a health campaign where 'Move Your Body' was the theme," she adds. "And Beyoncé created a music video, so we used that choreography because it was all over the internet to build the dance routines for our robot, and since we're building mobile robots -- we only had a summer to do it, and a biped robot's really pretty complicated -- we decided that we would provide part of the movements by having us dance with them."

The snack 'bots have seen better days. Ms. Snack-Man is missing her bow, and the grape's latex glove hand is dangling off his spray-painted pipe frame. But in spite of the budgetary constraints that have long been a part of life for after-school programming, things are looking up for Moore's labor of love. "We're leveling up," she says with a smile. The makerspace serves as a big piece of Ford City's attempt to revitalize itself in the wake of a number of rough years for the world of shopping malls. "We're actually moving upstairs to a more visible space, a larger space this summer. Our summer program will take place up there and we're thinking that should help us some because we'll get more visibility."

Level UP Chicago's mallbased teen maker space

"Being in a mall, we just have people who happen upon us, and the look on the parents' faces when they bring in a child, and sometimes they bring in a reluctant student," Moore adds. "When they bring in a student they say, 'You know, he wouldn't stop talking about it last night. I've never seen him this animated about something.' There are some parents who recognize the value of it as a possible career choice, but for many they're just looking for anything to get their child engaged."