by Sarah Thompson
Finger Lakes entrepreneurs retool environmental education through creative play
Two years ago, after decades of acclaimed solo work at his Ironvine Studios overlooking Keuka Lake, sculptor Sam Castner found a creative partner who shared his vision. Lindsey Dean was a young artist and metalworker who studied 3D visual arts in college, where she fell in love with creating objects that connect people. In 2019, after a serious motorcycle accident, she moved back to her mother’s hometown of Penn Yan to recuperate. For years, Lindsey’s mother had been trying to connect her with Sam; the accident finally brought them together.
“Everything kind of aligned,” says Castner. “I’m very reclusive in the sticks of Barrington, and to have someone like-minded here was really a blessing.”
New Partnership, New IDEA
The connection also sparked a project for which both Castner and Dean had a passion: educating kids through hands-on learning. Like many right-brained folks, the duo had preferred doodling to notetaking in school. They had to draw it to remember it, do it to know it. As a teen, no one told Castner about career opportunities in handwork or the arts; he wouldn’t find his calling until halfway through college.
In October 2019, Castner and Dean formed IDEA (Innovation. Design. Education. Art.) Collective as an educational, portable metalworking studio to teach youth employable skills like design, metal working and welding through creating public art.
“Lindsey and I are striving to be the mentors that we needed when we were younger,” Castner says.
They started by offering a two-day family workshop at Penn Yan Academy, culminating in a 16-foot metal sculpture of monarch butterflies on a milkweed plant. The plan, says Dean, was to offer more workshops to give kids knowledge of these skills, combined with a better understanding of their natural environment. But just as Castner and Dean were on the cusp of this new adventure, COVID-19 put a stop to all in-person group classes. During some of the darkest days of the pandemic, the duo reimagined their mission. They switched gears, deciding to bring their concept into people’s homes.
The Making of MakerKid
In December 2020, IDEA Collective released their first MakerKid Kit, an 11 inch by 9 inch box filled with a downsized, nature-based educational craft project. The change wasn’t simple. Although Castner and Dean have a combined 30 years of experience across multiple skill sets and portfolios, their usual projects were exceptionally large, custom installations. They’d never manufactured anything. Getting the kits right took hundreds of hours and multiple iterations.
Each MakerKid Kit has three components: a craft project, an educational instruction booklet and a seed grow kit. Sustainability is one of IDEA Collective’s core values, so the kits are manufactured to minimize their ecological footprint. The packaging, craft and booklet are designed by Castner and Dean in their Barrington studio. Everything else is sourced as close to the studio as possible and made in America; Castner’s neighbor does the laser cutting, and educational materials are printed at nearby Keuka College. Even Crayola, their marker supplier of choice, is based in Pennsylvania and has a robust sustainability program.
Their first MakerKid Kit – a wooden evergreen tree puzzle with a blue spruce grow kit – sold out quickly. A monarch butterfly kit, based on IDEA Collective’s earlier workshop, was released this spring. It includes a wooden puzzle and milkweed grow kit from Naples-based Fruition Seeds.
“Without milkweed, you don’t have monarch butterflies,” says Castner. “It’s just part of the magic. We’re teaching kids early about environmental preservation through these creative projects.”
The magic also happens in customers’ living rooms. Olivia Shea and her husband Mark own Cellar d’Or Wine and Spirits in Ithaca, and Olivia has known Sam since her college days. She’s experimented with lots of STEM/craft kits to keep her three young kids busy. When the Evergreen kits came out, Shea immediately ordered one, and she and the kids put their own spin on the craft – applying gold leaf and turning them into shiny holiday decorations.
“What is so special about these, compared to others, is they are little works of art,” Shea says. “After the kids have put them together, you have a desire to display them, not recycle them. We still happily display the finished piece on our mantle and planted the spruce sapling this spring.”
MakerKid Kits have another special ingredient: they’re kid-tested and approved. Seven-year-old Olivia Castner is the youngest of Sam’s four children. She and her older sister Piper tested about 30 monarch kit designs that didn’t work. It took Olivia three hours to finish the one, including snack breaks.
Although the kits are labeled for ages 5+, Castner and Dean have received positive feedback from adults. Many say the kits are deeply meditative and a good reason to break up the monotony of remote school with art and outdoor excursions. As Castner says, there’s no wrong way to make them. To Dean, this creative freedom is important for kids, especially teens, providing a way to disconnect from their phones and reconnect to themselves.
“When you start making things with your hands, you find that creative voice again,” she says. “You gain more autonomy in your everyday life when you have the choice to make that sculpture or picture into whatever you want.”
Changing Lives, the Environment, One Kit at a Time
The MakerKid Kits have also opened outreach opportunities Castner and Dean never imagined. The team has partnered with Yates County’s 4-H and Cornell Cooperative Extension programs, and the Dundee Central School District is using MakerKid Kits as STEAM activities in its Extended School Day Program (DCS TRAILS). And IDEA Collective is now collaborating with New York State’s eight Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management (PRISM) programs to make custom kits for invasive aquatic species, as well as the spotted lanternfly and Asian longhorned beetle. The project, funded by the Environmental Protection Fund and directed by the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, aims to increase experiential learning by kids about harmful invasive species.
“Our region is poised to be devastated should spotted lanternfly get a hold in our vineyards, hop or apple fields,” says Hilary Mosher, coordinator of Finger Lakes PRISM, a program of the Finger Lakes Institute at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. “We need to stay ahead of it by bringing awareness to the community about what this leaf hopper looks like and how to report it should they find it.”
In addition to making custom kits for environmental groups like PRISM, Castner and Dean plan to release at least four MakerKid Kits annually and offer a subscription service. This summer, IDEA Collective released its newest kit, a honeybee craft and wildflower grow kit. It’s available online and at several local retailers, including Anthony Road Wine Company (owned by Sam’s wife and family), Staving Artist in Penn Yan and others.
Castner and Dean know that MakerKid Kits won’t replace video games any time soon, but they hope the kits will fill a gap for many school-aged kids – allowing them to flex their creative muscles, learn marketable hand skills and gain a better understanding of their environment.
“Beyond an artistic profession, being creative can be applied to any area of life,” says Dean. “To get ahead in anything, you need to be able to creatively piece together separate things to come up with new conclusions. These kits exercise that part of your mind that’s sometimes left out in public schools.”
“We know that we’re changing people’s lives,” Castner says. “The kits may not look life-changing, but it’s a starting point.”