What’s new?

The most recent issue of Make magazine (Summer 2020) has articles about making PPE for COVID-19 protection, a backyard wind turbine, and a robot monkey. It also has articles with information about capacitors, wood glazes, and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). 

What does it mean?

Make magazine (available for free online or by subscription in print) publishes articles about how to make things. The long history of tinkerers, artisans, and crafters, in the past nurtured by Popular Mechanics, Erector sets, Edmund Scientific kits, and craft stores has morphed into the maker movement. The maker culture is inclusive and eclectic, emphasizing the participation of everyone. The Maker Movement Manifesto by Mark Hatch highlights nine verbs: make, share, give, learn, tool up, play, participate, support, and change. Makerspaces in schools, libraries, universities, and even street front locations provide space, tools, equipment, and community to support makers.

As a retired professor of engineering, I embrace the maker movement because it encourages involvement and fun. I think the movement can recruit young people into engineering. But I also cringe at the lack of understanding that can result. I have had elementary school students tell me that they have made a robotic arm (“we already did that!”) just like the one that took our senior engineering students a whole semester to design and make. Of course, the elementary school robotic arm is nothing like the college robotic arm, but try to explain that to excited sixth graders. Should I even try? Worse perhaps are the inventors who have invented perpetual motion machines (or the equivalent) and refuse to be taught about the laws of thermodynamics. Should I even try?

Good maker culture encourages experimentation and understanding. My strategy in teaching engineers is to start with an example and then extract the theory; that method of teaching requires using a good example, one that can be grasped with some common sense and intuition but one that is also deep enough to enable me to generalize from it and to draw out the underlying physics and math. The Make article on capacitors in the Summer 2020 issue starts with simple experiment involving discharging a capacitor to light an LED and then recharging the capacitor. Then the author (Charles Platt, author of Easy Electronics) explains how a capacitor works, including circuit schematics and an explanation of the difference between a battery and a capacitor. The explanations will be beyond some readers, will elevate or solidify understanding for others, and may prompt some to learn more.

Having stuff available to play with is a strong part of the maker culture. When I was a child in the 1950s, my father worked for Bell Labs, which had the policy that employees could take stuff home, so I had access to and played with batteries and electrical components, supplemented by kits from Edmund Scientific, and Erector sets. I also learned to sew on my mother’s sewing machine. I majored in math in college, but then went on to graduate school in engineering. A maker culture can nurture engineers.

What does it mean for you?

Education, especially in engineering, should be fun. And education in engineering has to be grounded in theory. Hands on with mind involvement. If you interact with children, make sure you give them those messages, in words and in actions. For example, the many excellent programs of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America (I am on the board of directors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Pueblo County) include DIY STEM, with components on energy and electricity, engineering design, food chemistry, and the science of sports.

As the maker culture and maker movement have spread, schools have incorporated hands on activities in STEM (or even STEAM, adding the A for Arts) into all levels of education. When the students from those programs reach the workforce and college, how do they change the established cultures in those organizations? Universities are learning that telling a student to take 20 credits of calculus and physics before you think about having any ideas is increasingly unacceptable. Engineering programs use introduction to engineering courses, just-in-time teaching, and makerspaces to try to keep the fun and enthusiasm alive. I tell students that calculus is the foreign language they need to come into engineering land and just like learning any foreign language, it is easier to learn when you are using it to accomplish some task.

Maker culture is also spreading into the organizations that employ the products of this culture. Can useful employees emerge from this maker culture? Yes, of course. Hands on, self taught technicians can be valuable, but a backyard welder may need some education and training to become certified. The certification should reflect the tasks the welder needs to do, but for all welders, safety practices must be taught and adhered to, reflecting the importance of safety in all organizations. And you need to think about how to test the ability of any employee to apply their knowledge outside of routine tasks if you expect them to do that on the job. Maker motivated engineers still have to learn the physics and math to understand how devices work.

More broadly, the culture and values of makers may have positive influence on your organization. Makers want to try ideas out in physical things, are willing to fail and try again, want and give critical evaluation of prototypes, and believe in educating and involving everyone. How would those traits work in your organization?

Where can you learn more?

A great place to start is Mark Hatch’s book The Maker Manifesto, which expands on each of the nine verbs I listed earlier.

Luminary Labs urges organizations to embrace the maker culture by getting exposure to maker culture, bringing making inside, and investing in a future of makers. Wired argues for the adoption of maker values: be open, embrace imperfection, love the process, and build community. Simmi Singh in the MIT Sloan Management Review says we need to embrace makers, not just entrepreneurial innovators, by embracing the creator identity, fostering interaction among creators, insisting on fluidity, and understanding the effectiveness of novel play. The company Stanley Black & Decker has developed an array of programs to empower makers.

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