February 8th, 2012
02:07 PM ET

How Maker Faire changed my life

Editors note: Maker Faire is a spectacular merging of artists, tinkerers, builders and folks with big ideas who converge in one place to show off all the great things they’ve made. It’s part science fair, part “Burning Man.”  14-year-old Ben Hylak writes about his transformative experience at Maker Faire after battling a life-threatening illness.

By Ben Hylak, Special to CNN

(CNN) - I’ve always loved computers. When I was 6 or so, I realized that instead of making all my Christmas thank you cards with crayons, I could do a mail merge – my mom says I’ve been hooked ever since.

At about 8 I started to rip apart old computers in our basement for fun, and the challenge was to put everything back together and make it work better than before.

I spent the summer after 5th grade working on an old Tangerine iMac laptop I bought from ebay. At first, my dad said he thought it was pointless to dissect a perfectly good computer. My mom convinced dad it was an education, and I could be doing a lot worse things with my time. I remember that Tangerine iMac like it was yesterday. It taught me tons. In my research on the ins and outs of that computer, I learned about the MAKE Movement.

MAKE seemed like a whole new world to me. I felt like I had found people like me. I went to school, sure, but that was not my support group. Sometimes it was just the opposite. MAKERS – their minds, the ideas swirling around, the junk turned into treasures, the energy of people who would enjoy turning an old laptop into something that could change the world – well, they inspired me. I would read their blogs, see what they were into, and I heard about the Maker Faire, and I wanted to go. Bad.

The first year I mentioned I would really love to go to the Maker Faire, I’m pretty sure my mom looked at me with a dead stare, wondering what I was even talking about. So I figured it was a “no” that year…

Then, in the fall of 2010, I came down with a very rare illness – the only reported pediatric case in the world of what I had. I was in the hospital for weeks, didn’t eat or drink a thing, and I guess it was looking pretty bad. I remember a blur, coming in and out of feeling too terrible to even want to be awake. My mom was there and at one point, she asked me what was the one thing in the world I’ve always wanted to do but never did?

I told her I wanted to go to the Maker Faire… it was such a nice thought in my head, all that “making” stuff, I wanted to feel that energy. It was the first thing that came to mind. I know my mom had no idea what I was talking about, but she looked it up and bought tickets to the 2010 NYC Maker Faire from my hospital room. She told me later that when she pressed the “buy” button, she said a prayer I’d make it…

Well, I did! About 6 weeks later, we were in NYC. Even though I was still recovering, it was an awesome day. My friend, Vincent, came too. We both learned to solder there, and just in time, because I needed that skill to begin working on my science fair project – a telepresence robot named MAYA (“Me And You Anywhere”) that I had been dreaming about in my head and researching for about two years.

That science fair project turned out to be pretty successful! I won “best in show” in every fair I entered, and returned to the 2011 World Maker Faire as a featured presenter. My project won four Editor’s Choice Awards from Maker Faire officials.

Eventually, MAYA was entered into the only available national science fair for middle schoolers, the Broadcom MASTERS Fair, and I was chosen one of 30 National Finalists. The Broadcom program really gave me the incentive to keep improving my project and learning. I went to Washington, DC to compete for a week, and I wound up becoming the Broadcom MASTERS Silver Medalist in October 2011. I was later chosen by the Society for Science and the Public to represent the Broadcom MASTERS program at the Presidential Science Fair at the White House in Washington, DC! I was one of only a few kids allowed to personally present my project to the President.

Quite a trip from that hospital bed…!

P.S. I still love to solder!

Ben Hylak with President Obama on Feb. 7 at the White House Science Fair

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Filed under: Culture • Innovation • Science • Social change • The Next List • Thinkers • Video
soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Jennifer

    Coucou à la communauté. Je sais que nous sommes déja presque en mai, ma meilleure copine se marie bientot et, j'ai été mandatée pour pouvoir inventer la meilleure idée de faire-part pour mariage
    Par contre il doit être : authentique
    Si vous avez des idées ;-)
    Merci

    April 16, 2013 at 7:20 am | Reply
  2. Dani

    You might cdeniosr making the Tumblr into a submission-based site you can still retain approval to ensure that only the things that are related to #bmmf end up on it. It's a nice visual stream, which is an advantage over Lanyrd I suppose

    February 22, 2012 at 2:44 am | Reply
  3. blackbeltb

    great job! way to go Ben!

    February 10, 2012 at 11:54 am | Reply

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