Exploring rural innovation, I stopped in Paducah, Kentucky. Drs. Lula Luu and John Crilly, founders of FIn Gourmet Foods, joined the mobile studio. Word got around town. Monica Bilak contacted me through The Innovator’s Community. I’m pleased to welcome Monica and Jimi Gwinn. They share how Sprocket is inspiring student innovation in Paducah.
Sprocket is a makerspace for students and the local community to learn and create with access to technology. Three years ago, the idea emerged. Today, Monica is the Development Director with a background in education and design. Jimi Gwinn, the Director, brings engineering, woodworking and metal artistry skills to the table. A boiler room and coal closet transforms into an 840 square foot space to design, build, innovate.
The Creative Drivers
What brought Monica from East Africa to Paducah 17 years ago was a spirit of creativity. For a dollar, she bought a house under the Artist Relocation program. In her words, Paducah was “a little town that had something going.” She opened a fair trade and coffee shop and worked in downtown development. Eventually she returned to her roots in education.
Life brought new challenges for Jimi Gwinn when he was in a car accident. One challenge was the awkward fit of his legs and wheelchair at the desks in college. He designed his own desk. Starting with basic materials, he finished with a mahogany, teak and burled cherry desk. He found his passion for woodworking.
Another life changing moment came with spinal fusion. The relief from constant pain freed his mind to think in new directions. He began designing a wheelchair controlled by body lean. A retired engineer pointed him towards University of Kentucky. Jimi jumped into the engineering program. His experience and training made him a prime candidate for inspiring student innovation. Monica recruited him to lead Sprocket.
The Perfect Storm
Monica was working with homeless 6th graders in an afterschool program. She introduced technologies and programming. Highly motivated, the kids loved learning in this non-traditional environment. Inspiring student innovation this way was one element of a perfect storm.
Local business, Computer Services Incorporated, reached out to educators. They valued their local employees and wanted to continue hiring locally. The problem – how to find the local talent. The next generation of skilled employees needed to build those skills now. The community went to work.
Monica took time off from her design degree pursuit. She focused on students’ needs.
They needed to develop highly valuable skills, build social networks and connect to local business and industry. The idea of a makerspace struck a chord. Sprocket launched with grants from the Kentucky Workforce and Education Cabinet, fundraising, and donations from companies like Toyota.
Lessons to Share
What Monica and Jimi learned along the way…
- Start – even if it’s small and imperfect.
- Keep going – don’t let failure be the end game.
- Cast the vision wide -take time to meet everybody.
- Don’t stop building the culture of innovation.