An Insider’s Account of Nerdy Derby at MakerFaire 2012

At the 2012 World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, makers of all walks once again converged to share their passion, see interesting and/or odd projects and to participate in this burgeoning movement. One of the exhibits which captured all of these aspects was the Nerdy Derby.

Nerdy Derby is a twist on the traditional Pinewood Derby event of the Boy Scouts of America’s Cub Scouts program. It was organized by students and faculty of the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program. ITP has been called the “center for the recently possible”. The program’s focus is primarily directed at the application of technology rather than engineering of new technologies. As an alumnus of ITP, I had an opportunity to volunteer at the event on Saturday.

Nerdy Derby was a chance for kids working independently, or with parents, roughly depending on their age, to think about creative problem solving. The requirements were simple: build a vehicle which would travel down the undulating wooden track. The rules were wide: no rules**. The constraints were tight: most people scraped cars together from provided and found materials; wheels quickly became scarce and makers needed to get ingenious. On the test track, you could witness tight iteration cycles as cars were modified, sometimes to simply roll at all, then tweaked to get faster, or in some cases, to better interfere with competitors.

Most of Nerdy Derby was surprisingly lo-tech. Aside from a RFID-based tagging system applied to each car to aid rankings, the track was waxed wood (though precisely lasercut) and cars were permitted to be made from anything—common materials were wood, foam and cardboard (and lots of hot glue). A call for participation went out before Maker Faire, encouraging makers to build cars ahead of the event. I saw a wide variety in the vehicles: a 3D printed car with square wheels, a piece of blue foam weighted with rocks, and my entry*— two spools of wire lashed to a simple wood frame (it was a champion for one heat, snapping an axle at the end of the track).

The most rewarding part for me was to witness the maker spirit manifest in participants as they worked over their designs—turning raw materials into race-worthy vehicles throughout the day. It was overwhelmingly positive and exhausting (I earned over 7000 Fuel mostly sawing wood and foam for car bodies).

The Nerdy Derby was a smash hit. Apparently, if you make something fun and gave it away for free then people are likely to flock to it. The workshop area was swamped—the event needed to temporarily shut down on Saturday to enable organizers to re-stock materials.

We should be reminded that serious play can be an important part of an innovative process. Despite the “no rules” rule, Nerdy Derby imposed some severe constraints by it’s nature. While not every vehicle excelled, these limitations bore some very interesting solutions. Makers were given an opportunity to experiment, see results, iterate and foster satisfaction at seeing their creations race. In a word, prototyping.

* I actually had two vehicles and an iteration cycle myself. The first car, GNU, was a pair of CD-ROM discs (Ubuntu GNU/Linux installers) attached by a threaded rod. This was very fast, due to the large diameter wheels, but unstable when hitting a seam in the track and derailed. The second car, Wired, evolved that design by increasing the wheel diameter but added a second axle to provide stability, using two spools of wire. It was fast enough to damage itself at the end of the track—I dismantled it rather than repair to return the wire for other makers.


** From the Nerdy Derby website: “While there are technically no rules for the competition, we ask that participants exercise common sense when it comes to safety.”