Sunday market welcomes spinners, rockets and printers

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Erika Gillette is the first to admit that she’s a rather unlikely person to promote science.

Yet, every weekend, she’s out at The Riverdale Y’s Sunday Market with her family, selling rocket launch kits and custom-made fidget spinners — all from the family’s 3-D printer.

“I was never good at it,” Gillette said. “I never really liked it.”

Gillette is an education professor at the College of Mount Saint Vincent, where part of her duties includes training students to teach science. And her life has come full circle. Gillette, 33, wants to make science fun and accessible to all ages and income levels.

She recently returned from Greece, where she taught students at a refugee camp. This summer, she and her husband Brian launched 3-D Learning Labs, a small company that makes eco-friendly take-home science kits made on a printer that literally creates three-dimensional objects from a computer image.

Gillette’s outlook on science began to change in 2006 after her first teaching job at Andrus Children’s Center, The Orchard School in Yonkers, that focuses on children with emotional disorders. The sixth-graders Gillette taught read at a first-grade reading level, she said. But they enjoyed science.

“They had a product at the end that they could share with you and explain what it was,” Gillette said. “A thing that could share with you. I thought, there is something to science that I am just not getting.”

She realized the most successful science comes from working on experiments and labs, not just from reading textbooks and memorizing formulas.

It also made her realize some teachers have to work harder to make sure students understand lessons might not come easily, even to the instructor. And that a teacher might not immediately be able to answer every question — and that’s all right.

“It’s being comfortable with the not being comfortable with knowing the answers,” Gillette said.

In 2013, Gillette co-founded HypotheKids, a Manhattan-based nonprofit where a scientist and teacher are paired together to teach science and engineering to students who attend underserved schools. It’s also good for the educators as scientists learn teaching skills and teachers receive more technical knowledge on a scientific topic.

Students get hands-on experiences learning about the subject, further confirming Gillette’s belief students enjoy and understand science better when working on labs and experiments.

After one of the participating scientists received a grant from the Blossom Hill Foundation, Gillette was invited to teach students living in refugee camps in Greece and make science kits. She made the first trip earlier this year, and made a second two-week trip in July, replicating some of the experiments she used with her students in the United States.

While students were not fluent in English, they did understand words like “bigger” and “smaller,” and working with items like magnets. Using kits that cost less than 50 cents each, students learned how to build a parachute using small plastic bags, strings and paper clips to see how objects land at different heights and weights.

But not everything works. For example, Gillette’s experiment building a solar oven using nothing more than a pizza box and aluminum foil to make s’mores hit a cultural snag. The recipe called for graham crackers, chocolate and marshmallows. The gelatin in marshmallows is usually made from pork, which Muslims don’t typically eat, so she had to locate vegan marshmallows.

The creation of 3-D Learning Labs came after her eldest son found it difficult to focus in school this past spring. Gillette knew he enjoyed science and taking part in experiments, and she used a fidget spinner — a spinning toy that typically has a ball axis — as a physics tool she and her engineer husband Brian planned to teach at his school, P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil.

When the school canceled the fidget spinner presentation, however, Gillette and her husband thought of selling the additional spinners and making custom ones at the Sunday Market. They also added a $10 rocket kit to their catalog.

Gillette’s three sons are part of the company as well, demonstrating to would-be customers at The Riverdale Y how to launch the rocket.

“People of all ages are just fascinated by it,” Brian Gillette said. “They stop by and look at it. Some are not familiar with it. We explain how it works.”

Rockets and fidget spinners may get the kids, but the technology behind their creation has grabbed the attention of adults, said Kelly McLane, manager of the Sunday Market located West 237th Street and Independence Avenue.

“They pulled in a bunch of adults who are not even going to the market to see the technology,” she said. “It’s really cool.”

For Gillette, the kits, the conversations and the 3-D printer go back to making science fun and accessible.

“Science is everywhere,” Gillette said.

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