Hey Kids, It's How to Do It Time

Mechanical engineer Adam Vollmer shows teens how to build their wild imaginings.

March/April 2011

Reading time min

Hey Kids, It's How to Do It Time

Courtesy WGBH

Working at design and innovation firm IDEO, Adam Vollmer has helped one client refine a minimally invasive tool for spinal surgery and another develop ideas for improving access to safe drinking water in India. Nice accomplishments for a 30-year-old mechanical engineer.

But not as flashy as the Frankenstein's monster cake that sits up like a corpse rising from the grave or the Christian Siriano-inspired party dress that lights up at a touch on the hip. Vollmer, '02, helped teens create those as co-host of Design Squad Nation, a reality television series for young people that recently premiered on PBS stations and runs through mid-April.

Design Squad Nation piggybacks on PBS's popular show Design Squad, in which two teams of teenagers tackle engineering challenges. The new series takes a different course: Vollmer and co-host Judy Lee, a colleague and product designer at IDEO, teach kids how to design and build specific solutions the teenagers have imagined. Lee, who suggested the show's producers meet Vollmer, had worked on a WGBH program that profiled women in science and engineering. Director and senior producer Dorothy Dickie liked Vollmer's ability to "distill complicated engineering principles and processes."

In the course of filming 10 episodes, the hosts traveled around the United States and to London and Nicaragua to make kids' dreams come true. They helped 17-year-old Ronnie execute a modular skateboard street course at the White Mountain Apache Reservation in Arizona. In London, community gardeners Mariam and Bert built a mobile "farm" that can be pedaled to restaurant kitchens. A tight budget of $2,000 to $3,000 for materials for each episode forced the co-hosts to be creative.

In remote Cusmapa, Nicaragua, for example, Vollmer and Lee worked with a children's foundation to build a playground that integrated the jungle environment. "There is no Home Depot in Nicaragua," Vollmer says. "Every single inch of wood we used had to be sourced from a local mill." Other materials—concrete, nails, fasteners—were ordered from almost two dozen far-flung hardware stores to ensure they met their deadline.

The project became a personal favorite of Vollmer's not only because it required such great teamwork, but also because he saw kids and adults learning to use certain tools and build something. "They're really great skills for anyone to have a sense of empowerment," he says.

Vollmer's love of engineering began with the Lego sets he and his brother (now an architect) played with endlessly while growing up in Portland, Ore. "I built some pretty amazing spaceships. I pride myself on that," he notes. Vollmer's father, Bill, says the role of TV educator suits Adam, mentioning that his son developed an afterschool math and engineering curriculum for young kids while earning his master's degree at MIT.

Design Squad Nation "was a great learning opportunity and chance to grow," says Vollmer, now back at IDEO after a leave he took to make the show. "I thrive and do my best and am happiest when solving problems with my hands in a creative way."

TRACY SEIPEL is a writer for the San Jose Mercury News.

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