Inside the underground Howard County space where kids build robots and discover tech Baltimore | Stephen Babcock

The two-year-old Hackground adds new programs as kids want to learn. The founder says it needs to be self-sustaining.

A high school robotics team at Hackground in Maple Lawn.
A high school robotics team at Hackground in Maple Lawn.

Baltimore (December 21, 2106) — Prasad Karunakaran has never had a problem getting kids interested in tech.

Instead of playing catch, he always bonded with his kids over electronics and other technology. When they were old enough, he looked to start coaching robotics leagues in Howard County’s Maple Lawn community.

“I had enough kids for my younger son’s team but I didn’t have enough for my older’s son team. So I went to the middle school and asked if I could start a robotics club there. I actually wanted six kids [on the team], but I ended up getting 25 kids. Instead of doing two teams, I ended up doing four teams,” he said.

Since then number of teams have only grown, and now they have a home.

Karunakaran opened Hackground in the fall of 2014 in the basement of a building housing office and retail space. There’s a makerspace, as well as workspace for the robotics teams and other STEM activities.

After opening, Karunakaran said he also realized, “There are people who want to come here. You have to go seek them out.” The space attracted students from around the area, including Prince George’s and Montgomery County.

This past fall, Karunakaran said about 100 kids were involved in activities at the space. There’s the FIRST LEGO League for kindergarten through 8th grade, as well as a high school FIRST Robotics Competition that stretches for six weeks.

Sivaleshwari Ramu said she didn’t have experience with robotics before coming to Hackground. Now the high school freshman is in an aeronautical engineering program at DuVal High School in Lanham, and is looking to go into biomechanical engineering.

“Actually seeing the robot get powered up and building and designing the mechanism for shooting, is really cool,” she said.

Karunakaran is the founding director and manages the Hackground, coordinating spaces and tools. In the makerspace, there is a laser cutter and 3D printer, and Karunakaran would like to get a CNC Router.

But a lot of the programming itself comes from the community. He puts the pieces in place for the robotics leagues, but parents and the students drive the program. One mentor, Ron Therrien, stayed on helping high school kids navigate the adventure of the FIRST Robotics Competition in a hectic six weeks after his son finished high school. Along with building and operating the robots, the students also raise money and some team members are responsible with developing business plans.

There’s also room to try new things. This fall, one high school student wanted a rocketry program. Now, there’s a class taught on Monday nights. Karunakaran figured out what he needed to provide — David Zuchero doesn’t have kids in the program, but he stepped up to teach the students.

Students also want a drone program, so Karunakaran is looking to make space for that.

Lots of passion comes through at the space, and the grassroots, volunteer-run nature of it all contributes to that. Karunakaran said the desire to help students is ultimately what keeps him going.

However, Karunakaran is open about the fact that he is seeking a way to make it more sustainable going forward. He said Michael Greenebaum and Mark Bennett of building owner Greenebaum Enterprises are big supporters in terms of the space. But there are still expenses. To keep the programming up and running, Karunakaran is looking to add for-profit sponsorships to support the activities at the space. He has also considered introducing a membership model.

“It has to be commercialized, there’s no question about it,” Karunakaran said.