I am an experimental physicist specializing in laboratory education. I have designed and produced many pieces of equipment for student experiments in laboratory courses, as well as developing several laboratory courses for undergraduate students and overseeing a number of student design projects.
I have made custom cell-phone amplifiers in a variety of forms using found items from cigar boxes to lampshades, and was featured in a local art gallery.
McMaster-Carr. There are so many things there that can be easily adapted to solve most design challenges, such as adapting basic cable holders into laser mounts for lab experiments.
Trying to find a way to quantitatively demonstrate the relationship between a swinging pendulum and a travelling wave was an experiment that I spent a long time trying to develop. While working with students we developed a nearly perfect apparatus using violet lasers and fluorescent paint.
It’s a will of ownership, of not being dictated to on how things should be or could be used. Its very liberating to have the ability to do things without initially requiring outside approval or acceptance. No one needs an explanation of why you’re doing something, if you want to do it you can simply do it, often for no good reason at all. To someone of my age, it’s a very punk rock thing, similar to just picking up a guitar and playing for the sake of playing.
Being located in New Orleans, our students already have wide exposure to the “laissez-faire” attitude of the city, where the ideas of artists and engineers often overlap into something that no one has ever seen before. The idea of adapting basic technology to participate in everything from grand design challenges to Carnival costumes changes their perspective from one of “That’s too complicated for me” to more of a “I bet I could do that even better” perspective. It creates a huge confidence shift, and that is evident in our students’ plans and designs. Projects get bigger, yet simpler and more robust. Students learn skills such as designing for repair instead of replacement, they learn about tolerances as they make their own parts, and also that being wrong isn’t the worst thing in the world.
There are innumerable ways that in contributes to large-scale solutions, but in my mind it boils down to confidence. Most people are too scared to ask the question “why doesn’t it work this way instead?” because they realize they are not experts, and just accept that someone else has probably already asked that question. Makers will readily ask that question, and will sometimes find out that there is no good answer. In the sciences we often refer to a quote attributed to Linus Pauling: “If you want to have a good idea, first you have to have a lot of ideas.” Students involved in the Maker culture tend to have a lot of ideas, and learn from them when they fail. The confidence gained in failure is what will drive them towards revolutionary ideas.
The same challenges that face any major shift in education: funding and acceptance. While the tools are relatively inexpensive, the know-how to help and encourage students is not. It requires a significant commitment from University administration and funding agencies, which is unlikely to happen if they do not full accept the premise.
I firmly believe that these skills are the future of the USA’s technological economy. Today’s students will follow a much more winding career trajectory than that of my parents, or even myself. A broad range of technological skills will be much more valuable than 20 years of overly specified experience as careers adapt and die at breakneck pace. The ability to learn quickly and contribute ideas immediately will be of great value as these students move on to greater challenges.
Find someone to help you get started, even if its only thorough online videos, and just start playing around with ideas. Even if you don’t have access to the tools right away, start sketching and playing around with ideas, no matter how mundane. Everything you play with makes you smarter in some way, don’t discount the value of learning “less sophisticated” skills and don’t dismiss “toys”, they can often become extremely valuable. Just keep picking up skills wherever you can, no matter how random or silly, because they all become arrows in your quiver when the big problems need confronting.