The Geekbus. Photo courtesy of Systemic.
The Geekbus. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

What is black, white, says “geek” all over, and travels San Antonio’s streets equipped with HD screens, robots, 3D printers, party lighting, and Raspberry Pi? It’s the one and only Geekbus. Once just a modest 1998 Winnebago, the Geekbus is now a high-tech mobile classroom on a mission to bring the job skills of the future to students across San Antonio. And, after a brief disappearance, its back for more.

Captained by “Maker” Mark Barnett, the Geekbus has already visited several schools and events since its re-launch with San Antonio educational non-profit SASTEMIC since January of this year. At each stop it offers students a crash course in one of five high-tech areas: Robotics, 3D printing, video game design with Scratch, computer programming with Python, and renewable energy. The Geekbus specifically targets Title 1 schools – which have poorer students, limited resources, and less access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.

“Maker” Mark Barnett tries out Google Glass. Photo courtesy of Systemic.
Geekbus captain Mark Barnett tries out Google Glass. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

“There are a lot of schools that want to do STEM education but don’t have the means to do it. Instead, we bring the bus to them,” Barnett said. “When we go out to those schools a lot of kids have never seen a 3D printer before, have never even thought about doing anything geeky or technological.  I think that we are sparking a lot of students into future possibilities.”

The Geekbus holds up to 30 students, is equipped with monitors, Raspberry Pi computers, wireless keyboards, Lego MindstormsVex robots, MakerBot Replicator 2 3D printers, two workbench areas and a soldering iron. Classes last about two and a half hours and the bus can do two classes per school visit. While the courses are fun, they are also designed to educate kids about specific tech career opportunities in the San Antonio-Austin area.

“We’re not just trying to spark kids but show them a clear path to a career,” Barnett said. “You like renewable energy? Finish high school, go to St. Philips and get a two year degree, and then go work at CPS. You want to do robotics? Finish high school, go to UTSA engineering, and then work for Southwest Research (SwRI). You want to do computer programming? Finish high school, go to the Open Cloud Academy and then go work at Rackspace.”

Since January of 2014, the bus has visited the Brooks Academy of Science and Engineering, Robert E. Lee High School, Toltech T-STEM Academy, and schools in San Antonio ISD and Lackland ISD. At Toltech, the Geekbus got to use its installed 3D printers and let students design and print out their own objects.

3D printers set up on the Geekbus workstations. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.
3D printers set up on the Geekbus workstations. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

“My kids were excited that there was this big, huge bus that could actually fit 30 people and have free 3D printers,” TolTech T-STEM Academy Principle Rose Narvaez said. “The fact that they could do a 3D sketch-up of an actual figure of whatever they wanted to make and then have it made by the 3D printer – they were just in awe of all of that.”

When not doing classes, the bus has attended events such as the FIRST robotics competition, Texas State STEM Fair, and Leadership San Antonio where it spreads awareness about STEM education by setting up different stations for kids to go through and experience the different technologies it offers.

But while the Geekbus is currently going full speed ahead – with a busy itinerary for the coming summer, the road it took to get here was not without potholes.

The idea of the mobile tech education vehicle was first envisioned by San Antonio entrepreneur and Geekdom co-founder Nick Longo, who wanted to find a way to bring technology awareness and education to San Antonio students. The bus itself was originally registered and located in Florida and used as a mobile party bus with video games and a bouncy castle. Longo found the bus on eBay, and saw its potential for tech outreach to students.

Nick Longo at Geekdom.
Nick Longo at Geekdom. File photo.

“I was always pondering ideas and that was one of them – how do we help people that aren’t at Geekdom, and especially how do we help kids? Because they aren’t eligible for Geekdom. They aren’t 18, etcetera,” Longo said. “It was really all about what we could do to show kids at school so they would go, ‘Wow! Robots are cool. Wow! Coding is cool. 3D printing is cool’ and that would translate to ‘I think I can do tech.’”

After being re-equipped, Longo had the bus covered in a sweet vinyl wrap – designed by Geekdom startup Roughneck Graphics – and transformed it into the Geekbus. It first debuted at Geekdom’s 2012 Christmas party as a part of Geekdom’s SparkED program, which was managed by Louie Pacilli. The bus visited a few schools and tech events in spring of 2013, but SparkED then stalled and would later fail due to management issues by that June.

Pacilli departed Geekdom and the captain-less Geekbus retired to Rackspace Hosting’s parking lot, where it would sit unwanted and unused for four long months.

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Gomez of the 80/20 Foundation worked to find the bus a new home – initially pitching it to UTSA without success. In late September of 2013, however, it would get a second chance with a partnership between Mark Barnett and SASTEMIC – a STEM non-profit founded by Scott Gray, CEO of Elevate Systems.

“In September Lorenzo pitched it to myself and SASTEMIC. We said hell yea!” Barnett said.

Geekbus in full form at the FIRST robotics competition. Photo courtesy of Systematic.
Geekbus in full form at the FIRST robotics competition. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

Barnett had just broken ties with educational nonprofit Venturelab, and the Geekbus partnership gave Barnett a sudden opportunity to keep the Makerspace STEM educational curriculum he was working on alive and transfer it to a mobile platform which would be owned by SASTEMIC. Barnett knew SASTEMIC well, having previously volunteered for the non-profit as a robotics education consultant for middle school and high school teachers.

In October of 2013, Geekdom formally donated the bus to SASTEMIC and the 80/20 Foundation gave them a matching grant of $80,000 to help get the Geekbus back in shape. SASTEMIC also received additional grants from Cognizant and the Maker Education Initiative, and created a donation drive on where people can sponsor students to attend Geekbus programs for free.

After a tune-up, inspection, and complete overall of the bus’s back end, Barnett was able to outfit the Geekbus with new educational equipment and get it back on the road. He even added a “loud ass” air horn originally designed for a train.

Raspberry Pi computers in the Geekbus interior. Photo courtesy of Systemic.
Raspberry Pi computers in the Geekbus interior. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

“When we show up at a school we honk the horn when we get there. When we leave we are waving and honking the horn and the kids are waving back at us,” Barnett said, smiling.

Barnett will be using that horn quite a bit in the coming months. The Geekbus is already scheduled to go back to Edgewood ISD, Seguin ISD, and upcoming events such as the Girls Inc. Science Fair and Innotech. It is also scheduled to participate in weekly tech camps with a variety of organizations throughout the summer. It’s a hectic schedule, but Barnett is happy to do the job.

“When I was in school there was nothing like this. I got bored in school several times and I almost dropped out of school. I became an educator and taught science, and I thought science was cool but I wanted to do something more hands on and tech involved,” Barnet said. “There is nothing like this in San Antonio and so I thought this would be a great place for it to thrive. There are so many missed opportunities for students – they don’t realize the awesome careers that are available right here in town.”

If you want the Geekbus at your school, you can contact Mark and look up pricing on the Geekbus website. The Geekbus will also attend certain tech related events for free.

*Featured/top image: The Geekbus. Photo courtesy of SASTEMIC.

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Andrew Moore is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote on tech startups for a year as a freelancer for Silicon Hills News and loves reporting on the cool...