When Bill Cloyd was growing up on a Lexington farm in the early 1980s, he enjoyed building go karts and mini bikes from spare parts and testing the laws of physics.
He erected an 80-foot-tall tripod from old TV antenna towers and practiced free-falling into a circus net. He made a human catapult to launch friends into a pond. And he created a centrifugal "vomit express" ride that quickly taught him the importance of putting an "off" switch within easy reach.
Making those toys inspired Cloyd to become a mechanical engineer.
"But I realized I was learning as much about engineering by building stuff as I was in the classroom," he said. "And building stuff was a lot more fun."
After teaching high school physics for two years, Cloyd started the nonprofit company Newton's Attic in 1998. He began by making resource materials for teachers but soon developed facilities and programs where kids could learn engineering, physics and technology by creating their own toys.
Cloyd and his wife, Dawn, a businesswoman and former language teacher, have operated Newton's Attic since 2012 from a five-acre former tractor dealership off Versailles Road just past Blue Grass Airport. They offer summer, spring break and after-school classes for kids ages 6 to 18.
Last week, when Fayette County Public Schools were on spring break, Newton's Attic was a beehive of adolescent creative energy:
Kids and their instructors were hurling pumpkins with a giant ballista catapult. They were building and flying drones. They were using wood, metal, PVC pipe and power tools to create robots. And they were learning about gravitational force by riding the Sling Shot, a 125-foot, bungee-powered roller coaster.
"It's a lot of fun," said Kate Golden, 10, as she built a robotic arm she designed to pick up tennis balls. "Nobody tells you exactly what you have to make. You can invent it yourself."
This summer, Newton's Attic plans 28 classes in such things as robotics, computer programming and building your own 3-D printer. There also is Camp Catapult and Camp Chemistry. During the past three years, summer camp enrollment has grown from 183 students to 730, and Dawn Cloyd expects more this year.
"The whole idea is fun with physics," she said. "Play is the ultimate learning tool."
Newton's Attic has worked on programs with many Central Kentucky school districts, the University of Kentucky, Berea College and the Christian Appalachian Project. Cloyd said they hope to offer professional development training for science teachers.
The facility also hosts school field trips, scouting events and birthday parties. Private tutoring is available, as is a "mobile engineering center" that can take programs to other locations. More information: Newtonsattic.com .
The business is supported by student tuition, donations and grants from companies such as Messer Construction, which recently gave several thousand dollars to improve the shop facilities.
"We have kids as young as 6 using power tools," Dawn Cloyd said. "It's amazing how responsible kids become when they get to do it."
Everyone wears safety glasses when using power tools, and there is plenty of supervision and help from instructors, both adults and older teens. Some instructors started coming to Newton's Attic as kids and are now studying engineering and related subjects at UK.
Blaise Davis, 13, has been coming to Newton's Attic for several years from Cincinnati and staying with his grandparents. He has built a go kart and last week was making a PVC cannon to mount on it to shoot tennis balls in competitive engineering games.
Rikki Gard's son Dexter, 10, started attending Newton's Attic classes four years ago. She said he has learned to build and fly drones, studied several computer programming languages and is already considering a career in computer science.
Her daughter, Maura, 6, began classes last summer.
"I don't know what we would have done if Newton's Attic didn't exist," Gard said. "You can't find electives like that anywhere else. I guess he would have had to get books and study on his own."
The family recently moved to Cleveland, where both kids will be going to Menlo Park Academy, a public school for gifted kids. "I'm sure Newton's Attic will be the thing they miss most about Lexington," she said.