I am a professor at Santa Clara University, where I serve as the director of our robotics/mechatronics program and our maker lab. I run a field robotics lab in which my students and I make novel, field-grade robotic systems and control them to perform real-world missions. These robots include underwater vehicles, autonomous boats, land rovers, aerial vehicles, and spacecraft. More broadly, teach a variety of courses and advise projects involving interdisciplinary teams and the hands-on development of innovative products/systems.
One of the defining moments in my own engineering education was the summer I spent designing and building a barn on my family farm. The barn is still standing more than 25 years later, and that experience gave me an incredible confidence in my ability to design and create substantial things.
I’m old school – there’s nothing like the zen of prototyping with foam core and wire wrapping!
As an educator, my biggest challenge is trying to dispel the notion that we must completely understand, model, and analyze something before we can know how to make it. I believe that there is much to learn in the attempt to make and that hands-on activities must be an early part of the learning process. The act of making develops our intuition, and for our students, it helps to excite them and attract them to STEM topics.
The Maker culture combines traditional craftsmanship with newly accessible and low-cost technologies – like 3D printing and embedded processors - in order to inexpensively create physical things. A large part of this culture involves the excitement of inventing and the development of one’s entrepreneurial spirit. And of course, it is wonderful to see the effects of this culture within the educational community and on the re-emergence of US manufacturing.
Our campus has always had a variety of wonderful hands-on student laboratories. These labs, however, were dedicated to specific courses, reserved for students in individual academic departments, and often oversubscribed. We started our Maker Lab to complement these labs by creating a relatively low cost and streamlined way to get students making things. While still conforming to all required safety and training requirements, students can be up and running in our lab in less than three hours, and they can use the lab for working on anything ranging from course projects to their own creations. Although we’ve had high-level administrative support, the success of our program has been from the ground up, with hundreds of students and dozens of faculty and staff using the facility. The lab is also at the heart of new entrepreneurial collaborations across campus involving engineering, business, and law students. We hope to soon expand the scope of the lab to engage local companies and to establish new outreach programs with local schools and communities.
Making can motivate, excite and inspire, and in doing so it can elevate our ability to solve the major problems we face.
A major challenge of Making is hype. The Maker movement is a wonderful thing, but it is not a panacea nor does it replace the need for rigorous STEM education. The challenge is in merging the two in appropriate ways. Making is critical to exciting and motivating new STEM students. It is also instrumental in illuminating real-world issues and the practicalities of designing new products and systems. We must find ways to have Making be a mechanism for grounding the analytical parts of an engineering education and for showcasing how analysis can lead to better, more sophisticated capabilities in what we make.
Making allows us to re-introduce the physical arts into our educational programs in an inexpensive and compelling way. Access to this culture and its tools will help expand our STEM workforce and may contribute to the resurgence of US manufacturing. And even for students that won’t pursue STEM careers, it will improve STEM-literacy across society, an effect that may be even more important to US competitiveness in the long run.
Don’t overthink things – just start making.