Create Realistic Miniature Scenery For Models, Displays, & More

‘Build Your Own Diorama’ coming Saturday, November 17, 1pm!

Family Diorama

Have you ever wanted to try your hand at creating:

  • Model Railroads
  • Terrains for Tabletop Gaming Miniatures
  • Doll and Fairy Houses
  • Scenery For Stop Motion Animation and Film Special Effects
  • Displays For Collectibles
  • Dioramas For School Projects And Local History Museums
  • Miniature Holiday Villages
  • Epic Decorations for Terrariums and Fish Tanks

…but were intimidated by the overwhelming array of materials, supplies, and techniques that all these related disciplines require to get started?

Sign up for ‘Build Your Own Diorama’ on Saturday, Nov. 17, from 1pm to 4pm!

Military Diorama

Model-maker Samer Najia will give you access to his vast collection of supplies and materials, and coach you with knowledge from his decades of miniature-building experience. Each student will create a realistic diorama to display their own scale model, 3D-printed figurine, or collectible, and learn skills that are valuable to model-making of all kinds.

A similar event in 2014 was a big hit; you can read about it here!

Adults, teens, and families with kids are all welcome!

Summer Makerquests, Workshop, Camps, and Ask the Parent’s Panel, May 9th, 7pm

Find out about kids and teens activities at Nova Labs. Summer Camps, workshop, and classes. Our kid’s programming show case will be on May 8th, at 7pm. Sign up here:

Does your son or daughter have a passion for taking things apart, building things, or working with tools? Have you been wondering how to best encourage your young maker? Want to learn the best ways to include Nova Labs in your child’s learning this summer? Want to know more about Makerquests?

This event will answer those questions and more. Bring your questions!

– How to leverage Nova Labs to Make a Young Maker who makes
– Makerquests this summer
– Q&A with Nova Labs parents panel! We have assembled parents from our maker community who have successfully fostered their children’s love of innovation through the programs available at Nova Labs. Learn from the experiences of these makers of makers
– Upcoming summer camps. Speak to the camp organizers. Drones, all girls drones, robotics, programming, internships, maker workshops with equipment sign offs.

DIYBio: Control a shark with your mind

Ed. Note: Blog post contributed by [Nick Carter], Maker, retired electrical engineer, who is active in the Robotics Meetup, DIYBio Meetup, Artificial Intelligence Meetup, and pitches in with STEM programs whenever needed.

Blog Contributed by Nick Carter, Maker, retired electrical engineer, who is active in the Robotics Meetup, DIYBio Meetup, Artificial Intelligence Meetup, and pitches in with STEM programs whenever needed.

The mind-controlled shark in action – view a video of it ‘swimming’ by clicking here.


While participating in the Nova Labs DIYBio meetings, I became interested in brainwave sensors and how brain activity can be applied. After some research the cheapest way to get into this seemed to be to buy a MindFlex game online. I got the MindFlex Dual because it has 2 headset/pickups. The EEG part is developed by Neurosky, who also sell their EEG amplifier/processing board for researchers. Initially I was just interested in looking at the game and the brainwaves and implemented a Bluetooth headset interface and could use an online program for Processing on the PC to display the filtered energy levels while playing the game.

After more research I came across a video of Open BCI developers controlling an air swimming shark – I decided to try that myself using the MindFlex game sensor instead. One major difference is that they used 5 players to control up/down/right/left and forward controls. I could only muster one or 2 inputs for control using the MindFlex.

After I got the game I found it was a great hit with both the DIYBio group and also the Saturday morning Maker Fun Project club (where I was volunteering) who asked me to make it control the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robots.

I used that project as the proof of concept for the Arduino/remote control hacking before actually getting the shark. I implemented the hack into the remote controller and made a chatty Arduino game that let players interact with the EV3 from Putty on the PC using W, A, S, D keys. I have not yet integrated this with the MindFlex but the same ideas apply.

Breadboard interface between arduino and game device

Breadboard interface between Arduino and game device

Then I got a shark and hacked the controller; I used a small relay board I developed after taking the Nova Labs Eagle CAD course to control the remote’s switches, electrically isolating the Arduino and the Remote control.

Rather than taking the MindFlex headset signals and interfacing them with cable or Bluetooth directly to an Arduino to do my own signal processing, I decided to use the MindFlex game base processing and use the Brain signal intensity signals driving the colored LEDs on the game. I found these signals were Pulse Width modulated to vary the LED intensity so I had to smooth them to make an analog level for the Arduino to monitor and set thresholds in my program to decide if the LED was on or off.

Although I wired out the 2 sets of LEDs for both player headsets, I only implemented the drive, leaving the climb/dive manual control for later. There are Red, Orange and Green LEDs lit for 3 levels of detected Brainwave intensity. To get the ability to turn as well as go forwards I used the Green to go forwards and the Orange to turn, alternating left and right when returning to Orange after Green.

Testing the shark tail

Testing the shark tail

I tested this with the shark tail wagging and interface electronics off the shark leaving the shark assembly and inflation for later. Inflation requires a fair amount of helium, I was quoted around $15 so I did not want to do this until really ready, plus an anchored tail was easier to handle.

Finally I inflated and assembled the shark, using helium from a “Party Balloon Kit”, and brought it to Nova Labs’ July 10 DIYBio meeting.

It is not as controllable as the Open BCI version but still fun to drive (although as you will see in the video, some manual intervention is needed) and I had a lot of fun implementing it.

For more details, there’s a slide deck on the Nova Labs Meetup “file” area, or by clicking here.

How to build a working Claw Machine Halloween Costume

Ed. note: Nova Labs contributor [Alexander Romero] built this Claw Machine Halloween Costume for his son last year and wrote about it for his blog. This article re-posted with permission.

If you want to see or show off your Halloween creations, join us at Nova Labs on Tuesday, September 27, 2016 at 7pm. Details on our Meetup page.

Why a claw machine

My son loves claw machines, so when I casually asked if he’d be interested in being one for Halloween his eyes lit up and he jumped up and down proclaiming YES, YES, YES!!

Thus the two of us set out to create one for Halloween. This blog details how we built a working claw machine Halloween costume. You can see the finished product in this video.



The build

claw_machine_02First thing we did was to acquire two U-haul moving boxes that approximated the body of the machine. A top one for the main part, and a bottom one for the longer body.

Then I cut out the centers of each of three sides from the top part of the body, which is where the main part of the machine would be. I left about a 4″ border around the sides. Actually I left an 8″ border, but then folded it back at 4″ to make is stronger. I basically doubled up the border for strength.

Now the next thing to figure out was how to connect the two boxes. I could have glued them, but I didn’t love that idea, because I wanted to be able to take the two pieces apart. Also, I wasn’t sure if gluing it would be strong enough. So I cut out four pieces of thin plywood, glued them to the top box, and the bottom box, then I drilled holes and secured them with washers, nuts and bolts. That proved sufficiently strong, but also added weight. I also cut out a circular hole for his head, and some holes on the side for his arms.

The next step was easy, but took a while. I spray painted the whole thing red on the outside, and white on the inside for the inside parts one could see. If I did it again, I would probably just cover the outside with red wrapping paper. The spray paint took way too long. On the back of the top part I used a sparkle wrapping paper I picked up at Michaels. You can see it in the picture below.

claw_machine_03After this, it was now time to figure out how to make a working claw. For this I used a combination of Legos, a salvaged electric motor from a Nerf gun, and a tin can. First I built the assembly that I would tie the string to that would raise and lower the claw. You can see I made the spool that would wrap the string a wider diameter, so it wouldn’t take so long for the claw to go up and down.

claw_machine_04I mounted this to the ceiling of the claw machine. To do this I used a similar idea to how I connected the two boxes. I used plywood as the backing so that I could have a secure foundation to mount the assembly. This meant that I had plywood and screws popping out of the top of the claw machine. You can see how I covered those up with a third low profile box on the top of the machine in the finished product picture at the top.

claw_machine_05For the controls of the machine, I used an old Lego controller. I mounted this to the underside of a control panel made of plywood that was also painted red.

claw_machine_06You can see the control panel below. It has a joystick to control the up and down.

claw_machine_07It also includes two other items. On the front right is an on / off toggle switch that controlled the back lighting. For the back lighting I used a strip of LED’s powered by AA batteries and wired it to the on / off switch which I got from Amazon.

claw_machine_08On the side of the control panel there was a pressure kill switch. It had to be depressed for the claw to go up or down. I put this in because there is no auto stop for the up and down motion of the claw. Meaning, once the claw was fully retracted, it could get stuck and potentially break the assembly that retracts it. So the pressure switch gives the person wearing the costumer the ability to regulate the use of the claw and stop it if it is getting too close to the top.

Because I wanted the ability to disconnect the top and the bottom of the costume, I got a trailer harness connector from the auto supply store, and used this as the connector between the control panel, and the rest of the electronics. There were lots of ways to connect these components, but I found this harness to be the cheapest convenient connector.

claw_machine_09claw_machine_10For the claw, I used wire snips to cut triangles in a tin can, then used those triangles screwed to another tin can to form the claw.

My wife helped find some other decorations, like the “Win Me” at the top, as well as the prize door, etc. I printed these off on a color printer then used adhesive spray to affix them to the costume.

To say this costume was a hit is an understatement! It was admired by everyone who saw it, from kids to adults. See the video at the top of this blog for the mob of kids that wanted to check it out when my son wore it to the Halloween party.

claw_machine_11Because the costume was heavy, I cut an old foam pillow and then attached it using string to the undersides of the costume where it would rest on my son’s shoulders. This helped, but it was still a pretty heavy costume for an eight year old. You can see below where I positioned and secured the foam pillows.

Then with the help of my son, we filled up the inside of the claw costume with stuffed animals. To secure these from jostling around while the costume was being worn, we used fishing line and tied it to the bottom of the machine.

Things I would have done differently:

  1. Use red wrapping paper instead of spray paint. The spray paint just took forever. Several coats and more expensive.
  2. Just glue the two boxes together. I’ve never taken the two pieces apart, so in hindsight, I didn’t need to have them disconnect, which would have saved weight.
  3. Skip the connector harness. As discussed in point 2, I never disconnected the two pieces, so there was no need for this.
  4. Used lighter battery assembly. With some more time I probably could have used the same batteries to power both the motor and the lights. This would have saved weight also.

Biotech for Makers

Ed. note: Nova Labs member and frequent instructor for the STEM4Makers series of classes, Jennyfer Peterson writes:

Biotech for Makers

Sudhita K. leading a DIYBiotech session

Sudhita K. leading a DIYBiotech session.

We’ve had two Biotech for Makers classes in April and they have been extremely successful and well attended. Here’s why these classes are so valuable as supplements for making young makers.

As with all of our kid’s classes, I try to get the mentors to connect STEM and making. In this case the making is DIYbiotech. The sequence of connecting the class to a Meetup is also present since we have a very active DIYbio community developing all around us and at Nova Labs. I invited a student to give a presentation on his DIY marine biology in space project. The folks in that meetup gave him lots of feedback and asked lots of questions.

Our classes are not meant to duplicate school, but rather to support and supplement passions in biology and biotechnology. To add the hands-on to the book work. For example, in DNA class, we don’t just look for DNA and then go ooow, slimy (well, we do actually), but we also start with a question: What is the best of these substances (reagents) to extract the DNA? The students are then lead through the process to collect data for comparison.

It is astonishing that kids get so much practice with data collection, yet so little with study design and next to no practice with the logic of analysis and forming conclusions. It is good to have the parents present for the learning. This way they are active observers. Hopefully, this will show parents where they might need to supplement or help their kids. Science books are necessary but insufficient to producing great scientists. Memorization of facts is very important; I am a strong proponent of traditional science and math memorization of basic data in math and science. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, please.

We must be wise consumers to STEM supplements; Don’t just duplicate what the kids are getting at school anyway. If we assert they are not getting enough logic and analysis then choose where you spend your supplement time and money to add these missing bits in.

The mentor for this one is Sudhita Kasturi, a member with a degree in biology, who also developed the curriculum instead of using a canned kit. She develops her own material and is being advised by the great people at SciTech, Towson University in Baltimore.

Be sure to keep a lookout for DIYBiotech and other STEM4Makers classes at the Nova Labs Meetup page. There are even some summer programs hosted at Nova Labs – checkout for more info.

DNA Extraction in DIYBiotech meetup

Mindframe Education partners with Nova Labs to offer STEM classes this summer


Mindframe education has partnered with Nova Labs to offer STEM-focused summer camps at Nova Labs. These summer camps combine fun and learning into one unforgettable experience that teaches students how to think and work like real engineers, scientists, creative designers, and developers. Students get to work on cool projects, engage in fun, hands-on activities, and develop real-world products and digital creations.


Some of the highlights of theses classes which run the gamut from programming, mobile app development, robotics, web design, 3D printing and even science are:

• Each camp includes instruction on the concepts and technologies, and fun, hands-on projects & activities
• All camps include a variety of fun break activities, indoors and outdoors, including games, challenges, and social time
• Students have access to real-world tools and the latest technologies
• Through individual and group activities, students will take part in hands-on projects that give them the opportunity to see their learning in action
• Students will grouped by age and/or skill level in each camp to allow students to learn and apply their new skills at a pace that’s suitable for them
• Students will be taught by tech-savvy, experienced designers, developers and engineers with expertise in their fields and a passion for teaching
• As the camp comes to an end, students will present their new creations and show off their skills to family and friends



The summer camps are one week in length, will run from June 22nd through August 28th and are targeted at rising grades 2-12. A complete schedule, and all of the details can be and a brochure with the camp schedule can be found at the Mindframe Education website at:

Nova Mini Maker Faire 2015

2nd Annual NoVa Mini Maker Faire, March 15, 2015

The NoVa Maker Faire is gearing up for its second annual family-friendly event that will bring more than 100 makers to a fun-filled day celebrating the diversity of makers across the region. The Faire will take place on March 15, 2015 from 10am to 5 pm at Langston Hughes Middle School and South Lakes High School in Reston, Virginia.

The Faire will include makers, activities, speakers and sponsors. Makers will share their knowledge through hands-on projects for adults and kids on topics ranging from blacksmithing and primitive skills to 3D printing, drones and robots to building customized equipment for special needs children to creative art-making. Makers will be grouped in neighborhoods by their topic. Neighborhoods include: Young Makers, Creativity Lane, Drone Zone, Robotics, 3D Printing Village, Science Lab, Flight Path, Sustainability Village, and more.

Nova Labs members will be presenting Vehicles – Flight Simulator and Go Kart, STEM4Makers, Top Drone, and others.

There are many other makers to explore. The Chaos Machine is a large marble machine that can be modified by participants. Gravity is Optional presents science experiments you can do at home. The DC Area Drone User Group will also demonstrate drone design and capabilities. Jennifer Gluck of JenmadeIt and Jade Garret will present adaptive equipment for special needs children. Artistic topics include hand spinning yarn, creating art from recycled materials, 3D printed artwork, woodworking, and creating ArtBots presented by the Children’s Science Center.

You can learn about makerspaces in area schools at Camelot ES, Kilmer MS and Falls Church HS; the STEAM program at South Lakes HS; Robotics program at Westfield HS, and the maker program at Loudoun Country Day School.

There will also be five activities for Faire-goers to try: Nerdy Derby, Catapults and Ballistas, KEVA Planks, GEMS Take Apart Zone and Demo-Vation with UpCycle Creative Reuse Center. Nerdy Derby is a no-rules miniature car building and racing competition inspired by the Cub Scouts’ Pinewood Derby. In the Catapults and Ballistas you can explore trajectory, torsion, torque, force, and materials using these safe tools. KEVA Planks are addictive small building blocks to build and explore with – fun for children and adults. In the GEMS Take Apart Zone you can disassemble machines to explore how things work. And then in the adjacent Demo-Vation with UpCycle Creative Reuse Center you can create something new out of these discarded elements.


Children building with KEVA Planks. Over 10,000 KEVA Planks will be available for building during the Faire, courtesy of KEVA Planks.

GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math & Science) Take Apart Zone


The Faire will present eight speakers this year including: Dr. Lance Bush, CEO of The Challenger Center for Space Science Education; Jennifer Gluck who creates DIY adaptive equipment for special needs children; Vicky Somma, winner 2014 White House 3D Printed Design Challenge; and Chris Vo, Chief Scientist at Sentien Robotics and President of the DC Area Drone User Group.

Vicki Somma, winner 2014 White House 3D Printed Design Challenge, will present “3D Printing Without a Printer”


Credit – Vicki Somma

Food will be available for sale on site by area food trucks including: Doug the Food Dude, Fava Pot, Hardy BBQ, Mama’s Donut Bites and Tasty Kabob.

Advance tickets are available online now. Tickets are $15 for adults and $5 for children through March 14, 2015. Tickets at the door are $20 for adults and $8 for children. Volunteer opportunities are still available which include a free admission ticket.

The Faire is thankful for the support of its sponsors including: Fairfax County Public Schools, Fairfax Connector, The Innovation Fund of the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia, Google, AOL, School for Tomorrow, Reston Association, and Merrill Lynch. Community partners include: Reston Community Center, GEMS (Girls Excelling in Math & Science), and Workhouse Arts Center. Media sponsors include Activity Rocket and Reston Association.

Free parking is available at the Wiehle-Reston East Metro station in the County garage. Free shuttle bus service will be provided from the south side of the Metro station to Langston Hughes Middle School and South Lakes High School. Only handicapped parking is available at the schools. A bike valet will be available at the event.

Check the mobile website for complete list of makers and speakers, to volunteer and to purchase tickets. The site will be finalized the week of the Faire.


Blacksmithing, Credit – Everest Gromoll


Drone from DC Area Drone Group, credit – DC Area Drone Group


Solutions for special needs by Jennifer Gluck, Maker and Speaker, Credit – Jennifer Gluck

STEM4Makers: LEGO Build Day


On Saturday January 24th, Nova Labs STEM4Makers threw a huge LEGO party! The event attracted more than 30 kids ages 5 to 14.

There were lots of LEGO-related activities, each with their own dedicated zone. There was a LEGO Construction Zone with over 2,000 LEGOs donated for temporary use by Keane and Bryce Peterson. Thanks guys!

We covered the floor with a bib plastic tarp and the kids had a fantastic time building and socializing on the floor or the surrounding tables. The tables served as a way of keeping the kids in the LEGO zone, a very good thing for Kids activities in a working Makerspace.

There was a LEGO Racetrack zone where the kids could race their LEGO cars. There was a LEGO Arena where one could drive your robots. The tables were filled with various LEGO-related crafts such as Make Your Own mini-fig or Lego Kirigami. Since you can’t have a LEGO party without LEGO-themed food, there was the LEGO food zone. The Yoda Soda caused much comment and I resisted giving the chemistry of Yoda Soda lesson. While there was NO candy, there were lots of yummy alternatives that were healthy and gluten-free.

How To: Build an Arduino MP3 School Locker Jukebox

photo 1

I attended parents’ orientation night for my to-be-grade-seven daughter this Spring, and all was fine until I noticed LOCKERS……  it felt like yesterday that I was helping my little 3 year old put her sun bonnet into her cubby at pre-school, and now she is about to attend a schoold with lockers.  Lockers that in my day held no end of contraband, Led Zepplin posters, graffiti, inappropriatenotes, dirty gym clothes…….  I almost passed out.

Later that night our Principal shared that a school tradition is that fathers were invited to decorate their kids’ lockers just before school started…..  my wheels started turning.  How about a locker Jukebox that would play a different playlist on each day whenever the door was opened.  It could play holiday music at holidays, spooky sounds around Halloween, awful birthday songs around birthdays, “I have a dream” for MLK day….  Nobody’s done a musical MOTD for lockers that I could google – we would rock that locker and every day that a new playlist would kick off my kid would think “My dad is such a nerd”.  Perfect.

 The software flow would be boot, look up the date, use the date to look up the desired playlist in a calendar, dip the EEPROM to see what track was last played then plan the next track in the playlist du jour.  Bit of multidimensional arrays and reverse engineering Chinglish documentation.   Cake.

 So – high level design.  Arduino doesn’t have the horsepower nor the library to do native MP3 decoding, so I ordered a standalone MP3 player with a serial control interface and grabbed an arduino nano out of my box and a realtime clock:

  • MP3 module – WT5001M02-28P – I paid maybe $15 delivered.
  • Arduino Nano – Any arduino pretty much would work, the nano is fun sized and thus ideal.
  • RealTime Clock (RTC) – I used a 1307 like this (or this).

 The gotcha dragons that needed to be slain were:

he MP3 module BARELY supports FAT 16/32….  it doesn’t understand filenames, the ORDER of file entries in the FAT system is what it uses…..  practically that means “random file play order” unless you use a FAT sorter program like “FAT Sorter” – “Play file 1” will play the first file loaded onto the media, regardless of name.  Really – repeated for emphasis, the MP3 player can only play a file based on which FAT entry number it is.

  • The MP3 module is also persnickety about what it plays – basically it barely plays WAV files, so I used Audacity to convert everything to a consistent MP3 format.
  • See first point – Excremental MP3 player lack of filesystem support made it important for me to name every file with a sortable name – DOS stinks so I used a “bulk file renamer” to deal with hundreds of files intelligently….. like this (first page of 400 odd files):

  • Awful documentation of the MP3 module available here.

So – how to bolt it together?  The realtime clock (RTC) gets plumbed to IC2 interface, the MP3 player is connected to the serial interface, speaker to the MP3 player and power for all….  done (insert cheezy schematic or napkin diagram).  To keep power usage low, I use a normally-open SPST switch (epoxied to a rare earth magnet) to apply power to the system (from a USB emergency power bank $5 brick), whenever the locker door opens.  System boots, plays the next song in the current playlist.


Fritzing (neat if perhaps a tad buggy) didn’t have the MP3 module so I used a generic 28 pin doomahickus (right hand side module) to represent it.  Note that there are only half a dozen interconnects, plus power – simple and easy.  Transmit wired to Receive (visa versa).  The battery illustrated is really a USB “emergency backup” battery that I put a microswitch on – when the locker door opens it provides 5V to the USB port of the nano which powers the MP3 module.  The microswitch is epoxied to a rare earth magnet that came out of a hard drive.

Construction is REALLY hinky – I just taped two small (free) protoboards together and used jumpers to wire the whole thing up.  I wrapped it in racer tape, and called it a day.  Yes, etching a board would have been more elegant, this took literally two minutes.

Not shown in the code is the “how to program a 1307 module” I’d programmed mine for an earlier project – use your google-fu to find a sketch you like to program the time into a 1307 and run it first.

photo 2.JPGphoto 3.JPG

photo 4 (2).JPG

photo 2 (2).JPG

The code is pretty straightforward – note that the MP3 player takes a second or two to cold-boot (the main setup delay), the calendar uses 31 days for every month (I couldn’t figure out a more compact way than just wasting 16 or 20 bytes on nonexistent days, sorry), every day lists a playlist, every playlist contains 10 songs, each song is an ordinal “which song number after FAT sorting the micro-sd card” index that is passed to the MP3 player.

In the code below you’ll see thirty odd playlists that are invoked by season, by day, etc.

It took far longer to curate the playlist than to program/wire/enclose the project, so prepare to spend time here.


ARDUINO Code available here.


I left in the debug serial.print stuff because it doesn’t take up much room, and you’ll probably want to mess around a bit with it in place.

What would I add?

The original idea was to also have a tricolor LED strip that would play a related (curated) color sequence per song.  I didn’t want to mess with also having a 12V supply, and the buck/buck switcher I ordered got lost en route from China so that led to a “Plan B” involving listening to the MP3 output with an analog input, doing a simple fast fourier-type transform to get freq bin / amplitude info then doing a color organ.

Midway through the code I realized “doing a transform to pseudo-frequency domain representation of an MP3 is really, really, really stupid” so I took yet another detour to look at Cypress who now sell an integrated SOC with a magical on-wafer FPGA capability.  The NEXT rev is going to have a SW defined “old school” analog domain color organ (bandpass filter feeding an integrator that will report to the micro) which will drive an algorithm to represent the music based on the color organ input.  I’ll ditch the arduino for a Cypress PSOC4, but I need to get smarter about FPGA first.

For the time being though, this will be the “MVP” feature set.