Maker Profile

Who are you and what do you make?

As a faculty member in Cornell Systems Engineering, I have the great opportunity to work with people from and have students from every undergraduate college working alongside me on our projects. Some of the greatest Making I’m a part of is in the Intel-Cornell Cup, a national embedded system competition where we make robotics and even more importantly design guides that empower students everywhere to become better Makers. Similarly I also run Cornell University Sustainable Design which focuses on building and alternative energy systems and has made everything from novel remote occupancy sensor systems to entire schools in South Africa.

There are many other Making projects I’m involved with here at Cornell including our own Maker Club but I am honored to have help lead Cornell to become the first university to officially partner with Make and we are now developing a new Pitch Your Prototype national competition with Make. Additionally, I lead 2 Higher Education Maker Alliance projects with a key goal of accelerating new Maker pathways in the K-12 to College STEAM pipeline.

What's the favorite thing you've made?

Without question: My son! But when considering my second favorite, from making furniture with my grandfather to video games with the NSF, I’d have to say my favorite thing has been the Intel-Cornell Cup Modbot System. This robotic modular system is designed with well- defined interfaces and detailed documentation purposefully created for teams to replace/add elements to, or utilize elements from, in order to create their own entry design. As a demonstration of its versatility, the ModBot system has been used to create a variety of robots from autonomous omni-directional rovers, to humanoid robots that can play RockBand the video game with 98% accuracy on expert, to even droids inspired by R2-D2 and C-3PO. This robust platform was revealed at the May 4-5 2012 final event at Walt Disney World and is anticipated to significantly help more than 50% of each year’s entrants. This year, it will be utilized in creating a miniature scale yet operational theme park ride that will be featured at NASA Kennedy Space Center. For more on these resources please see the Cup website:, where a major update is planned for late Fall of this year.

What's your go-to Maker skill and/or tool?

My go-to Maker skill is Systems Engineering. As much as I have a passion for making, making with a purpose to fulfill a need, perhaps better than has ever been done before, is what drives me to be creative and productive. The ability to define what are the real functional needs than must be achieved, along with determining the way to objectively test and assess any solution’s performance towards meeting those needs provides clarity and focus towards designing a better solution. Systems engineering provide the tools to do so and in many ways it is a key secret to my success.

What's been your biggest Making challenge?

The biggest making challenge I’ve had is actually helping other Makers recognize how to develop their own Systems Engineering skills in Making and make the transition from being Makers to becoming Maker Pros. This will always be a continuing challenge but one that is marvelously rewarding. The ripple effects from helping others become better Makers (which I believe is an amazing cornerstone to the Making community philosophy) are far greater than any Maker could achieve by only working alone. 

Aside from the educational work I do at Cornell, one of the best tools I have found to help overcome it has been the Intel-Cornell Cup. This national embedded system competition challenges students to create any embedded system they want but they must assess and demonstrate their entry’s performance. Teams winning this competition have gone on to be featured by NBC, CNN, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, Discovery News, Popular Science and many others have gone on to win additional awards and have even become the 1st American team to win the James Dyson Award, demonstrating how they really have advanced to become Maker Pros.

How would you define 'Maker culture'?

A maker culture is an open, supporting community that empowers students’ creativity and inner desire to use the skills they have developed, and enthusiastically challenge themselves to explore how far they can take their skills to make something real.

How is Maker culture transforming your campus?

The Making culture provides a common bond between many of the innovators that have had that spark of inspiration that they believe could lead to greatness but are just beginning to explore its true potential. Getting a new project idea off the ground has always been a challenge, but Makers are able to feed off of each other’s energy as they work to overcome the initial trials that come with any new endeavor. This sense of community and support turns any place Making is happening into an innovation incubator -- open places to try and prove new ideas so students can gain the support they need to demonstrate their idea’s value and progress even further through many of the larger channels already available throughout campus.

How can Making contribute solutions to big problems?

Making is the gene pool of innovation. The more Making that can occur, the more diversity of innovation we as a society can have, and thereby the more new connections can be formed to solve even larger problems.

What are the challenges facing Making in higher education?

A fundamental goal of higher education is to provide students with the core knowledge and tools necessary throughout their careers. Even when traditional courses may seem like vegetables, boring but still good for us, traditional higher education can at least be sure that students are getting the basic nutrition they need.

Making’s non-traditional nature makes it hard to assess whether students are getting all of that basic nutrition even when evidence may suggest that Making could lead to even greater “superfood” benefits. There are success stories but somewhat in part due to Making’s novel nature, the effort required to truly do Making based education holistically well, ensuring all of the basic nutrition needs are met while still infusing the Maker benefits, can be a considerably more substantial task than developing and conducting traditional courses, which is demanding in its own right.

Additionally, higher education also has the challenge of how they can encourage and support Making in meaningful ways for K-12 students. Making can be a fantastic STEAM pathway for students of all walks of life and it is a responsibility of higher education to ensure that these pathways to college are effective to meet our nation’s, and the world’s, STEAM needs.

Why do you think Making is an important 21st century skill for students?

Making has existed for as long as the imagination. However, it is an ever more important skill to develop as our world becomes more complex. Innovation has spread its greatest when more of the people are able to create to meet the needs of the world around them. Since the world is more complex, the more people need to be shown that they have the ability to overcome that complexity and continue to create. More so, the Making movement today also helps to create new tools and the human networks needed to make Making easier, to even make more people into Makers, and then help Makers to become Maker Pros that are ready to make a difference.

What advice would you give to someone who is new to Making?

Failure is inevitable in every innovation. I fail every day. The important thing is to learn why things fail and how to try again, and then don’t be afraid that you might fail again. Just keep trying until you learn why your idea really isn’t a good one or until you’ve made something that you can be proud of. Either way, you’ve succeeded.