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At work on the robotic PVC pipe organ at StudentRND

A lot of folks have been lamenting the state of education, wondering if the U.S. will lose its edge in the critical areas of science and engineering. Those naysayers haven’t met Edward Jiang.

The 20-year-old University of Washington computer science student spends his spare time running StudentRND, a Bellevue skunk works of sorts where high-school and college students can drop in for free to build everything from low-cost surface computers to robotic pipe organs to video games.

Jiang started the non-profit organization three years ago while a senior at Interlake High School after gathering some of his buddies from the robotics team who wanted to build more practical, real-world stuff. Today, the organization has the support of organizations such as Stratos Product Development, Physio Control, Medtronic, Google and Chase Community Giving, but Jiang says they are looking for more involvement from the technology community via mentorship. It operates on a grass-roots budget of about $30,000, with 39 percent of funding coming via corporations.

“As time went on, we realized what we wanted to build was a community of kids who loved to build cool stuff,” said Jiang, who given his busy schedule no longer has time to participate in the cutting-edge projects.

Tucked in a 3,500 square foot office space in Bellevue next to an auto repair shop, StudentRND opens its doors on Wednesdays and Saturdays to kids who want to tinker in an electronics lab (complete with soldering tools and oscilloscopes) or Fablab (outfitted with a 3-D printer and laser cutter) or computer lab (full of software).

Those tools, combined with the endless creativity of the students, can lead to pretty compelling ideas. Take for instance the plasma speaker, as demonstrated in the video below:

The mission of the organization is both educational and entrepreneurial, notes Jiang.

Edward Jiang

“On one hand we are an open workspace and we provide these resources for people to learn. And for a lot of students that’s really what they want to do. We compare ourselves to a library a lot. If you go into a library, you can write a book and then you can sell it, and the library doesn’t really own any claims to it,” Jiang tells GeekWire. “But I feel that we are a proving ground for entrepreneurs as well because you have motivated students over here who want to do interesting things, and some people are creating it just because they want to explore the technology and some are building things because they actually might like to make something they want to monetize.”

The R&D lab will be brimming with life on February 18th as students from across the region gather for a 24-hour video game hackathon known as CodeDay. Similar to Startup Weekend, groups of kids form teams, pitch ideas and then set to work to build a new product — all in 24 hours.

At the last event in December, more than 60 students attended with a group of Redmond High School students (Preetum Nakkiran; Vladimir Korukov; Ben Morrison; Jennifer Schumaker; andAlex Schumaker) taking the top prize with a game called S.S. Halfling.

CodeDay is $5.

Students at work on the plasma speaker

At this point, Jiang said that he’s looking to build StudentRND into a more professional organization, one where students with a love for science and technology can feel at home as they take ideas to reality.

“If you are in school, you are learning physics or you’re learning computer science, but you are not really applying it. You are just learning stuff to take a multiple choice test at the end of the quarter,” Jiang says.

Being student-run, Jiang said that they’ve received no hassle from the landlord or the organization’s insurance company. The biggest challenge, he said, was getting high-school science clubs to get involved since many are afraid of liability issues.

“The biggest thing that we have is freedom and flexibility compared to doing things with the schools,” he said.

Asked how he’s juggling both school and a non-profit, Jiang said that it is a balance.

“It is difficult, but as I am sure you know, if you are doing something you love, then you are going to do it,” he said.

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