What’s going down in Leonardo’s Basement?

Young inventors bring figments of their imagination to life, and revive old bikes and VCRs

Leonardo's Basement inventor C.J. Savage, 10, focused his hot glue gun intently on the seams of his partially screened lizard cage, while rocking-out on his headphones. "I'm going to get a lizard," he said -- taking a break, "I'm thinking maybe about a leopard gecko."

On the other side of the room, located in the second floor of a Southwest church, inventor Tyler Mahony, 11, carefully placed a broom handle in a clamp, before beginning to saw. "I'm making a handle for my rice-shooting gun," he said.

Savage and Mahony are just a few of many pre-adolescent inventors and builders working in organized chaos at Leonardo's Basement, 4554 Blaisdell Ave. The after-school-type program focuses on children developing and building inventions and innovations -- sure to rival any outdoor adventures at summer camp.

"I get to do whatever I want and make whatever I want -- it's fun," Savage said of the program. Leonardo's Basement director Steve Jevning said that's exactly the idea behind the activities. "We try as best we can to have kids help realize their dream," he said.

What's Leonardo's Basement?

The basis of the program is to give kids the tools and guidance to be creative using invention, building and sometimes art. Jevning started Leonardo's Basement with other Southwest families in 1998. He said he got together with his son, now 14 years old, and some other kids after school to do science experiments and take field trips. "The kids wanted to do more, but there was no space," he said.

Building on the kids' desire to learn, Jevning started a few after-school classes, which quickly led to summer classes. In addition to their space in the church, Jevning said many classes are conducted in other spaces, including local parks and his own backyard.

To focus students more on the building and inventing process rather than production, Jevning said he tries to tailor a loosely structured class. "Kids decide what they want to do," Jevning said. "They should be able to make these kinds of decisions."

Instructors

Program instructors come from very diverse backgrounds; some are licensed teachers, while others are experts in their field, such as sculpture or physics. There is even a lawyer on staff.

Instructor Jef Pokorney is a licensed teacher of a different ilk -- he's an independent operator who goes from school to school teaching invention and creativity classes.

Pokorney said he likes to watch the children's imagination take form. He said his basic job is to provide direction but stay out of the way, being available for help and watching for safety.

Instructor Lakeesha Bowers is a recent graduate from the University of LaCrosse, Wis. with a degree in art. She said she came to Minneapolis to look for a job as an art teacher, but found no open positions in the school system. Bowers said she then heard about the LB classes from a friend and came here to teach. "It's an amazing learning process," she said, watching the kids busy and hard at work.

On occasion, volunteers assist instructors.

Classes

Staff diversity makes for a wild variety of class options. Building and invention classes of all kinds are offered for children ages 6 to 16. Classes are one to two days a week after school during the school year, for approximately six weeks. time, and run a week at a time during the summer.

In past classes kids have made a bicycle, a raft and even rebuilt a VCR. Classes only run one week in length, said Jevning, because it would be too expensive to run longer classes. The average summer class costs approximately $120.

Jevning said one challenge in developing class ideas is to make them non-gender specific. He said giving a vague class title like modern architecture gives kids the option of building a dollhouse or a space station. When the scope of the class is broad, kids don't always follow predisposed gender lines. Jevning has found that girls often really like classes he didn't expect them to run with, like clay sculpture.

Jevning is also trying to program classes to appeal to teenagers. "It's challenging to find things cool enough and interesting enough for teens to do," he said, stating that his own teen is becoming more and more selective in his class choices.

However, Jevning said he's working around the problems by trying to tailor some classes to older kids, such as a model airplane class and a Lego building class. Among those new classes, he said he would be offering a new textile class and a physics class, which he'll call Fizzick's.

For more information on Leonardo's Basement classes call 824-4394.