Building Steam Festival: Making Something Out of Nothing With Makers of All Ages

A group of enthralled kids watched for an hour as a toy rocket was slowly built by a 3D printer. Another group of students got an up close and personal lesson on how to create a circuit, while others tested their science and math skills with a Jeopardy! challenge. All in the name of making something out of nothing with STEM learning.

The Building Steam Maker Festival, held May 14-16 at Bell Works, brought the maker community together, inviting professionals, amateurs, enthusiasts, hobbyists, innovators, entrepreneurs, tinkerers and craftsmen to showcase their passion for technology and making. The festival was a chance for kids and adults alike to experience, hands on, the most innovative and creative technology around. The name ‘steam’ comes from the recent addition of ‘art’ to traditional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, making it STEAM-based learning.

Joel Auerbach, the organizer of the festival, aimed to make the event a learning experience for everyone, but focused specifically on students, inviting New Jersey-area schools to attend a special educational day on May 14, filling the giant, open atrium at Bell Works with curious kids.

“As a former educator, I’m passionate about getting kids interested in technology and STEM learning from an early age,” said Auerbach. “Immersive learning is the best kind of learning.”

Students from Middletown high schools, North and South, and Henry Hudson Regional School participated in challenges like an egg drop (an egg is dropped slowly from an upper level of the massive 2 million square-foot Bell Works building), and a downhill derby where participants made and raced their own derby cars. There were a dozen other activities that challenged students, and even some adults, to think like STEAM makers.

“Showing kids how to make something from scratch and then allowing them to get hands-on experience with that object is a great way to encourage engaged learning,” said Auerbach.

Students also got to stretch their mental muscles by going head to head in a Jeopardy! challenge, answering questions like “Who invented the lightbulb,” and our personal favorite, “How many Nobel Peace Prizes were won by Bell Labs scientists?” (Thomas Edison, and eight prizes.)

Building Steam attendees also got a chance to see drones fly and race up close, and even an opportunity to buy their very own drone from Drone Systems Services, an exhibitor at the event. 3D Monstr, a 3D printer designer and manufacturer, demonstrated several different 3D printing projects during the three-day festival, and David Peins, a former educator, taught students computational literacy using robotics, wearable displays and embedded controllers.

“Making something out of nothing allows kids to make mistakes and helps them to understand that there are often many right answers to a given problem,” said David Peins, president of Robodyssey Systems, a teaching organization where children learn the fundamentals of electronics by engaging in problem solving activities. “Because we are so concerned that our children are not going to have the skills or necessary knowledge to succeed in this increasingly complex world, we take away the one thing that may help them — the ability to fail. We constantly check their progress, when what they really need is the confidence to try new approaches to solving problems.”

The Building Steam Festival is only one of the events at Bell Works signaling the rebirth of the spirit of innovation, invention and creativity that was so prevalent in Bell Labs’ heyday. Signs of life are everywhere in renovations happening that include coworking, flexible office and maker spaces and the tenants moving into the historic building like Spirent, Symbolic and Work Wave. The site’s history of education and learning is experiencing a revival too with events like the networking career fair hosted by the mayor of Holmdel for recent graduates and current students on May 25 and the New Jersey Strategic Design and Tech Meetups happening multiple times a month.

For a list of upcoming events, visit and

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