KENTON, Ohio — It’s not quite Silicon Valley, but for rural Hardin County, Ohio (population 31,641), it comes close.
Thanks to $72,000 in grant funding in the last 15 months, a large portion of the Hardin County office of Ohio State University Extension is now the Spark Lab Innovation Center, a space designed to inspire creativity and innovation in young people and local entrepreneurs alike.
OSU Extension is the outreach arm of The Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. County offices are funded through cooperative agreements between the university and county commissioners.
Among other technologies, Hardin County’s Spark Lab is home to a 3-D printer (the county’s first), a handful of drones, a smart board, a laser cutter, a video conferencing seminar room, and a video production lab with an HD video camera, a green screen and an Apple computer with Final Cut software for video production work.
“We see it as an innovation center and sort of a classroom and an Extension office of the future,” said Mark Light, the director of the county office and its 4-H youth development educator. “It’s morphing as we go.”
Light, who’s also the person who lit the spark behind the space, said the lab was made possible initially in November 2014. That’s when the Hardin County Commissioners gave the go-ahead allowing OSU Extension to use 1,000 square feet adjacent to its office space that had recently been vacated by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services.
By spring 2015, he applied for a $49,000 innovation grant from eXtension, an organization supporting Cooperative Extension System professionals nationwide. Of 50 applications, his was one of just eight that was awarded. Then, in spring 2016, he applied for and received a second $23,000 grant from the Columbus Foundation.
Besides supplying the Spark Lab with technology and new furnishings, the grants are also supporting three summer college student interns who help lead Spark Lab programs for area children and teens, including Tech Tuesdays and Workshop Wednesdays.
“I watch as the kids walk in, and their eyes, their faces and their minds just light up when they get here,” said Demi Snider, the family and consumer sciences summer intern and senior majoring in agricultural communication at Ohio State. “What is exciting for me is to be able to watch them become innovative along with the other activities we are doing in the space.”
The center is also a space for local entrepreneurs, Light said.
“If they come up with a concept, they can print off a conceptual design using the 3-D printer, and then they can make a video about it and promote and share it using our remote video conferencing capability,” he said. “And they can do it all right here in Hardin County instead of feeling like they have to go to a larger city to accomplish all that.”
Local businesses and organizations are venturing into the space to see what’s available, Light said.
“Lots of groups are using this space, and with the new modular furniture, it’s flexible and easy to change the configuration depending on the use,” he said. “It allows for a lot of interaction. It’s helping change the mindset of how a meeting space is set up.”
Light hopes the lab becomes a model for other Extension offices around the state and nation. But it takes a core of local support to make such a space happen, he said.
“People ask, ‘How can you do all this?’ and it’s because of the initial investment of the residents providing funding through a levy,” he said.
Hardin County is among about a dozen Ohio counties that provide extra tax dollars to support Extension services in their area. The Hardin County levy started in 2009 and was renewed in 2014.
“The levy funds the staff and allows us to pursue these other funds to bring things back to the county, like the Spark Lab,” Light said. “There’s a real synergy that gets the ball rolling, and it starts with community support.”