Traverse City tech center ‘a gym for your brain’

Mark Urban
Traverse City Record-Eagle

Traverse City — Every stem needs a place to grow and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) now has one under the pyramid at Logan’s Landing.

Local robotics mentors John Gilligan and Philip Leete started Quarkmine in September of 2016 and added Space to its name on Oct. 14, opening almost 4,000 square feet of space as a regional hub to make, play and learn.

“We’re kind of a gym for your brain: A maker space, tech, robotics and gaming facility,” Gilligan said. “We’re a place where all kinds of things happen, everywhere from robotics teams of elementary through college kids come here to practice. We have a pretty good sized maker community started where people are coming in and working on projects, 3-D printing, Arduino, Raspberry Pi and even woodworking.”

Gilligan brings an informational technology and entrepreneurial background to Quarkmine Space. Leete brings the educational component, having left Traverse City Area Public Schools to join the ownership team.

Leete said community outreach demands in robotics eventually led him away from teaching, even though he still retains his secondary certification.

“It became unmanageable as a teacher to handle all these other volunteer hours,” Leete said. “I was putting in more time volunteering at a regional level to answer those questions than I was actually doing in the classroom. John and I started looking into is there a need to help those districts find a way to re-engage their community and that’s where Quarkmine really began, first with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) events and education and then we realized there was a definite need for a centralized location where that can happen, which is why Space came into existence. ... It creates a physical location where those questions can be answered, (regardless) of what school you attend or how old you are.”

Gilligan said there is a definite growth in the area of school robotic teams, especially before students reach high school. Gilligan said a few years ago there was “one official team” in elementary through middle school — and now there are about 70.

“We got our start in local robotics competitions,” Gilligan said. “Both Phil and I had been involved in the public schools robotics programs and just realized that the model wasn’t really something that’s sustainable, that’s workable. So we came up with the solution to get more rural schools involved by making it really easy for them. That’s kind of how we kind of got our start all across northern Michigan. ... We have a pretty well-oiled machine as far as finding out what robotics is, getting kids interested, forming teams, finding coaches for teams and then we run events as a service. We can do anything basically related to robotics teams.”

Quarkmine Space uses a membership model, offering a standard one-year membership for $30 a month and a family rate for $75 a month. An individual “pay as you go” membership is $50 a month.

Classes are available for members and non-members in areas such as VEX IQ Robotics, Lego Mindstorms EV3, 3-D drawing and printing and electronics. A rocketry class is planned.

In addition to exposing people to STEM activities, Leete said collaboration is a big component to Quarkmine Space. Both co-owners said creating a sense of community is important when manufacturing options are more spread out away from larger urban centers.