Eric Kaplan is a 44-year-old man with a history of racing souped-up Barbie jeeps.
He keeps a photo of himself racing on his phone. In it, his 5 o’clock shadow is peeking out from beneath a foam novelty cowboy hat, his knees folded up near his body and his shoulders hunched. The “Knight Rider”-themed car underneath him is so small it’s almost an afterthought.
His facial expression in the picture is serious. For Kaplan and his fellow builders at the Omaha Maker Group, of which he is president, building and racing supercharged kids cars really is kind of serious.
It’s a test of brain power, creativity and MacGyverness. It’s not only who has the best parts but who has the best people, the best minds and the best ideas.
Whether it’s building speedy cars, Lego contraptions or technological doodads for the home, Kaplan sees the joy in making. And he wants to share that with more people.
Kaplan helped lead the push to bring a Maker Faire event to Omaha. The second annual Omaha Mini Maker Faire, which is sort of like an all-ages science fair with a broad scope, will be held at the Omaha Children’s Museum from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. The event is free with museum admission.
There, makers of all ages will show off their creations and network with one another. And they aren’t all gadgets. Eleven-year-old Allie Weber is bringing a “green” doll house. Truck Farm Omaha is bringing its mobile garden in the back of a 1975 Chevy pickup truck.
“Somebody who is building a greenhouse has an opportunity to talk to somebody who is running a community garden, and they can start sharing ideas and they may have never talked to each other before,” said Kaplan, who is executive producer for the event. “It’s an opportunity to get those interactions together.”
Kaplan’s background is in mechanical engineering, but his management skills made him an ideal person to help spearhead the Mini Maker Faire project.
He moved to Omaha four years ago from Atlanta. He works downtown at Union Pacific Railroad, where he manages and helps design facilities and mechanical systems. Outside of work, he volunteers with the Maha Music Festival and Habitat for Humanity, all of which sharpen his management skills.
Most of the people in the Omaha Maker Group are in their 20s or 30s. Kaplan, at 44, is the big kid. He’s the one they turn to when they want to really build something — something that takes more than circuit boards and bolts.
But he’s more than just an administrator. He tinkers, too.
He plays with erector sets, builds PVC tracks for marbles and flies quadcopters. He rips apart Halloween decorations and retrofits improvements, such as a door sensor, to build animatronic skeletons that scare the pants off the kids in his neighborhood.
The first project Kaplan remembers was picking apart an old clock radio when he was 10 years old. Soon after, he replaced a slot car engine with that of a higher-speed construction truck slot car. Next, he wants to create a Christmas tree water feeder with an LED display built into an ornament.
“I’m not going to buy something if I can make it myself and I can make it more personalized and make it do exactly what I want it to do,” Kaplan said.
He’s hoping that the Omaha Mini Maker Faire will show people in Omaha that they can do the same.