Baltimore kids, 'Mythbusters' co-star team up to build interactive sign for White House lawn

"Mythbusters" co-star Adam Savage visited the Digital Harbor Foundation in Federal Hill Sunday, where he worked with Baltimore children to build an interactive sign for the South by South Lawn festival at the White House Monday. (Colin Campbell, The Baltimore Sun video)

Mayen Nelson normally goes to bed around 8 p.m., but Saturday night the 10-year-old fifth-grader was too excited to go to sleep. He stayed up an extra two hours, his father said, watching episode after episode of "Mythbusters."

The next morning, Nelson and a group of other Baltimore kids got to meet Adam Savage, one of the hosts of the Discovery Channel show, and help him build a large, interactive LED-lit display to be featured prominently during an event at the White House on Monday.


The South by South Lawn festival, inspired by South by Southwest, the annual conference in Austin, Texas, will celebrate and encourage American innovation — or "ideas, arts and action," according to the White House.

Savage and the other kids at the Digital Harbor Foundation Tech Center in Federal Hill worked with Jennifer Schachter, a Maryland Institute College of Art graduate and the Robert W. Deutsch fellow at Open Works, to build a 7-foot-tall "SXSL" sign in wooden block letters.

They unloaded the letters, the support beams and other materials from a U-Haul truck. But before they got to work, Savage had an important announcement.

"Everybody, I apologize for my B.O. today," he said, to laughter. "I was not prepared for the humidity."

"Welcome to Baltimore," a few of the adults responded.

In a matter of minutes, the children were painting the wooden supports black and the giant block letters white. Schachter sat on the floor, amid wood shavings, cutting a few more support blocks. Once the paint dried, Savage used a staple gun to affix a strand of color-changing LED lights to the letters.

"I do two things: I make stuff and I tell stories about making stuff," Savage said. "Those are completely inextricable to me when it's going well. To me, the story here is that this is an amazing organization with a bunch of kids who are really, really hungry to build stuff, so I wanted their help to put these together.

"I consider myself a permission machine, and I want everyone to know how much fun it is to reach out and build something that's yours."

Savage paused at times to address a pair of TV cameras following him around, but mostly fixed his smile on the roughly 20 or so children working with him. Wearing blue jeans, a plain black T-shirt and a NASA cap, he hopped onto a table at one point to hold up a piece of wood and show which side should be painted.

Schachter said the chance to work with Savage to make a White House art installation was "like everyone's childhood fantasy." She said the opportunity arose thanks to the foundation's former executive director, Andrew Coy, who now works at the White House.

"We got the project about two weeks ago," she said. "I got a phone call: 'Do you want to build some 7-foot-tall, light-up sign letters for the White House with Adam Savage?' I was like, 'Absolutely, I'm on board.'"

Savage, who had the idea for the sign, sent Schachter some sketches and they hashed out the idea over a few phone calls. Then she put in about a week's worth of 12-hour days in the woodshop at Open Works, an artists' workspace and incubator on Greenmount Avenue, fabricating the letters for the kids to put together for the sign.

"As you come into the event it'll be the centerpiece," Schachter said, "these big standing tall letters, sort of like the Hollywood sign, with support beams behind them, and the letters will glow from inside with hundreds of LEDs, and those will all be programmed to interact with users on social media at the event," with the sign changing colors when people use a particular hashtag.

Shawn Grimes, the executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation, said he was thrilled for the kids, many of whom participate in afterschool programs, using the 3-D printer and other technological tools at the foundation's workspace. The programs are open to students from third to 12th grade.


"We need kids working on this stuff because it gives them confidence, it gives them problem-solving abilities, and they really just — they love it. It gets them excited," Grimes said. "The kids here are very passionate. They're driven. They're interested in having an impact on their community, and they're interested in solving problems, real problems."