Local whiz kid brings technology to the masses

Fenwick junior partners with library to host Maker Fest

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By Jylian Roach

At first glance, River Forester Ethan Baehrend seems like a typical 17-year-old. His room sports a variety of posters dedicated to pop culture icons, a beloved gaming computer, and even a Morty costume from the hit TV show Ricky and Morty.

Except the posters depict Bill Nye and Neil de Grasse Tyson as saints. The gaming computer was built by Baehrend himself and that three-dimensional Morty mask? He printed that one his own. Yes, printed.

Because underneath the awkwardness of being a teenager and behind the "Portal 2" posters, Baehrend is something of a technological prodigy.

He was just 13 when he was first introduced to the world of 3D printing. He said he learned about it at school and enjoyed it enough to purchase a small $300 printer to experiment with at home. After some trial and error, Baehrend successfully made his first model — a deer. It wasn't long after that the first printer broke, but it sparked a passion that wasn't going anywhere.

"I found the technology interesting at the time and I needed something to occupy my time kind of as an escape," the Fenwick High School junior said.

Soon Baehrend started buying broken 3D printers, refurbishing them and selling them on eBay. This wasn't far from the business he was already running: modifying computers for friends. He'd been doing that since middle school.

As his new side business grew, so did Baehrend's skill. By the time he was 16, he said, he started drawing up plans for his own 3D printer. This one, which stands about waist-high on the average person, is entirely modular, which allows the user to create a single torso-sized object as easily as petri dish colonies.

And that printer will hopefully be one day available through the company Baehrend just started — Creative 3D technologies.

Being something of a motivated innovator, Baehrend said he also wanted to make 3D printing more accessible to other high-school and middle-school students.

He is just a community project away from earning the Eagle Scout title from Boy Scouts of America. While there were a variety of simpler projects to choose from — like beautifying a public space, or collecting items for local nonprofit organizations — Baehrend decided to follow his passion again.

"There were other, easier options," he said. "But I wanted to do something in my interests."

At first, Baehrend approached the Oak Park and River Forest public libraries with dreams of building a permanent maker space within the building. While both libraries were intrigued by the idea and interested in joining in on what has become a trend among libraries throughout the country, neither had room for such a space.

Undeterred, Baehrend came back to River Forest Public Library with a re-designed proposal: a "maker fest."

The day-long event on Oct. 7 will run from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m. and will feature activities and presentations from 12 Chicagoland creative organizations, such as School of Rock, Vortex Drones and Warehouse 88. 

"He's really an amazing kid," said Francisca Arnold, public relations and marketing associate for River Forest Public Library. 

Arnold said River Forest has embraced the "hands-on" trend of libraries for the last several years, and Baehrend's project aligned perfectly with that mission.

"One of our strategic goals is to stimulate imagination and another one is lifelong learning, so [the Maker Fest] really fits in with what the library's doing as a whole."

Much of the event is about doing rather than listening. School of Rock, for example, will have what they call a musical petting zoo for participants to visit; Vortex Drones will have drone demonstrations outside.

And this interactive style is exactly what Baehrend had in mind when he designed Maker Fest.

"That's what we hope to try to simplify with this fair. We want to make the technology more approachable," he said.

Diana Baehrend, Ethan's mom, said the business, the inventing, the Maker Fest — none of it surprised her. In the hall of her River Forest home is a shadow box that contains some aluminum foil sculptures. These, she said were one of the many things her son had created. On the back of the shadow box is the story the aluminum sculptures tell; because Ethan, she said, has always wanted to create and innovate. For him, the bigger the project, the more creative, the better, she said.

"Ever since he was little, Ethan has always been creative in the sense that 'I want to make something and it has to be big and it has to be right,'" she said.

She's visibly proud as she talks about Halloween costumes he designed over the years; ones with flashing lights and moving parts. She's even more proud when she explains that his hobby is 100 percent funded by Ethan. She happily drives him wherever he needs to go to fuel his creativity, but he has always been responsible for making the money spent on his projects.

The only problem she sees with his passion is that he's ahead of his time.

"If there were a negative, just for now, I think it's a little isolating," she said. "It's not easy to find someone who understands. Adults love it; kids, not so much," she said.

Ethan Baehrend seemed less concerned about this drawback, shrugging as his mom speaks. He's too busy checking on a small printer that's hard at work, making a new component for his prototype. He expects to have it working before Maker Fest.

"I took the best out of everything I know in four years' experience in 3D printing," he says, "and put it into something I can give to the masses."

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Catherine Faber Smith from Chicago  

Posted: October 4th, 2017 12:07 PM

Yey Ethan! In the line of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, you will go far. Logan will be there to help you this weekend. They're lucky to have you! Catherine and Logan Smith

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