On a Monday night in late February, diners enjoying a quiet meal at Ranazul in Maple Lawn were blissfully unaware of the carnage occurring in the basement below them.

It seems an attacking robot was crossing a moat and crashing over a rock wall in a furious attempt to breach castle defenses and capture the defender’s tower.

Team 5945, |CTRL| (that’s mathematical shorthand for Absolute Control) was making final adjustments on Apollo, its entry in the 2016 FIRST Stronghold international competition on March 18, when Absolute Control will square off in Bel Air against other regional FIRST Robotics Competition teams.

Absolute Control is just one facet of Hackground, a nonprofit STEM (science, technology, mathematics and engineering) enrichment club established five years ago by software entrepreneur Prasad Karunakaran, of Fulton, to provide a workshop and instruction space for middle school and high school students.

“Makerspaces have sprung up all over the United States, but they tend to be geared toward adults,” Karunakaran said. Wikipedia describes a makerspace as “a community-operated workspace where people with common interests, often in computers, machining, technology, science, digital art or electronic art, can meet, socialize and collaborate.”

“The idea for Hackground started with my own children. After looking around, I realized we didn’t even have an adult makerspace in Howard County, so I decided to provide one for them and their friends from school,” he said.

Word got around, and since October 2014, when the workshop grew too large to operate out of Karunakaran’s home, Hackground has been located in an unused storage area beneath Ranzaul, Pearl Spa and the Smallwood RE/Max offices. Maple Lawn developer Greenebaum Enterprises genially donated the space, Karunakaran said.

Team Support

Although Greenebaum officials declined to elaborate on their role in the partnership, Karunakaran said they have been enormously accommodating and supportive.

“I can’t believe how much they’ve done for us,” he said. “They built new walls, installed a door and ran a new electrical supply so we could have a separate workshop, and they even made a large donation to help us buy a drill press, band saw and other tools. They’ve even allowed us to expand into another room temporarily.”

Support also comes from the businesses above Hackground, he said. “Pearl Spa has been kind enough to lend us the use of a meeting room when we get crowded with multiple groups on the same night.”

That happens on occasion, with some 70 students distributed among six FIRST and FIRST Lego League robotics teams.

On the night Absolute Control was preparing to bag and seal Apollo for its trip to Bel Air, the ratio of mentors to students was roughly one to two. About 18 students were in attendance, hailing from Howard, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. Professional expertise in the room included software, artistic and 3-D design, coding, mechanical engineering and even business planning.

“All of our mentors are volunteers who come to share their knowledge and inspire these students, and we have something going here three nights a week and on weekends,” Karunakaran said. “It’s a tremendous time commitment, and many of them don’t even have children in the program. Their dedication is phenomenal.”

Beyond Robots

Hackground mentor Ron Therrien said Team Control had just six weeks to build its robot for the FIRST Stronghold competition after receiving instructions and guidelines in January.

“They’ll be competing in another competition in Edgewater a week after Bel Air,” he said, “and two of our Lego League teams are moving on to the state championships at UMBC in March.”

As evidenced by the roster of 72 Lego League finalists in the state of Maryland alone, it’s evident just how influential FIRST has become since Segway inventor Dean Kamen established the youth organization in 1989, Therrien said.

Like FIRST, Hackground’s mission is STEM advocacy, but the emphasis is on much more than just robotics, Karunakaran said. “We’re also here to hack, not in the computer sense, but to take things apart and repurpose them or make them do something they weren’t originally designed to do. Our name implies that we’re a hacker space that’s also a playground for kids.”

Activities are scheduled at Hackground only when students are gearing up for competitions.

Additionally, organizers incorporate instructional seminars, including Java programming instruction, as part of the program, and invite parents working in both STEM and non-STEM related fields to give presentations on what they do and how STEM impacts their careers.

Expansion, Execution

“I’m really amazed at how this whole thing has grown,” Karunakaran said. “We’re now becoming more structural in our programming, and in only one-and-a-half years we’ve evolved to complete independence with a program that’s open to anybody who wants to be part of it.”

Still, he said, he recognizes that the model is not sustainable as a nonprofit organization. “It’s a lot to demand of volunteers, and I’m probably going to have to start paying for instructors at some point to keep it going.”

Karunakaran’s vision for the future is to someday move out of its borrowed Maple Lawn space and restructure the program as an educational arm of Zenyon, the information technology services company he founded in 1997.

“We’ll still be doing the same thing, but we’re not going to do any good by limiting ourselves to a 15-mile radius,” he said. “I want to move beyond our current reach and eventually do something like this for Howard County, Maryland and perhaps even nationally if we can figure out how to execute it.”