THE BLOG
09/08/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2016

Democratizing the Maker Movement

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Vanguard researchers design tools, technologies and approaches for more awesome, inclusive making

The fact that millions of Americans are building airplanes in their garage, meeting at makerspaces to work with strangers on customized robots, and collaboratively solving society's problems at hackathons, is a beautiful thing.

To its advocates and participants, the Maker Movement resonates with all of those characteristics that we believe makes America great: independence and ingenuity, creativity and resourcefulness.

But as impressive as today's tools are, they're not accessible to many Americans simply because of their costs and high technological barrier to entry.

Though the price of 3-D printers has come down considerably and continues to drop, the tool still costs several hundred to thousands of dollars to buy. And mastering even the simplest computer-aided modeling tools requires a bit of dedicated study and technical savvy.

This begs the question: How can we continue to bring this nascent revolution to everyone who is interested?

At the Pad (Prototyping and Design Lab) in Baltimore, Maryland, Amy Hurst is helping to answer this question, one new making tool at a time.

An assistant professor in the Information Systems Department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), Hurst creates tools that almost anyone can use.

In the process, she's engaging individuals with special needs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning through making.

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Hurst's experiences working with a diverse population -- including individuals with intellectual disabilities and visual impairments, power wheelchair users and physical therapists -- led her to realize that many people couldn't access the supposedly "easy-to-use" DIY tools currently on the market.

Moreover, she found most people didn't necessarily want to create unique 3-D models or original objects; they wanted to replace, repair or customize objects they already owned.

These insights led Hurst and her team to develop a series of new tools and platforms under the banner: "Making for All."

"We're empowering people to incorporate making into their daily lives to solve their own accessibility challenges," Hurst said.

The prototype tools that Hurst has developed range from VizTouch, which lets teachers quickly 3-D print tactile math equations -- equations one can feel -- for visually impaired students;

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to GripFab, a tool that lets disabled individuals print custom hand grips.

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Support for Hurst and others like her from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is helping to expand and improve 3-D printing and design technologies, to make 'making' more accessible to all people.

"NSF invests in the innately curious, creative and self-motivated people who engage in various forms of making," said Pramod Khargonekar, NSF's Assistant Director for Engineering. "We embrace a broad spectrum of makers, including those who develop the innovative new designs, ideas, tools and technologies that enable making activities."

But Hurst and her 'Making for All' approach are only the beginning.

A factory for making tools

NSF's role in making actually started decades ago, before the movement had a name, a grassroots following and a presidential champion.

It started in laboratories across the nation: at The University of Texas at Austin in the mid 1980s, where Joseph Beaman and Carl Deckard were the first to demonstrate and commercialize a process known as selective laser sintering, where a high-powered laser is used to fuse small particles into precise 3-D shapes.

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At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where a team led by Emanuel Sachs in the late 1980s developed the technique of laying down a layer of a powder and then squirting a liquid binder on the areas to construct 3-D objects.

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And at the University of Rochester, where the first practical software for three-dimensional modeling was developed in the early 1980s.

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At the commercial level, these technologies were supported by grants from the Small Business Investment Research (SBIR) program, which helped to turn ideas into mass-market products (though not overnight).

[For a full history of NSF's role in making technologies, see the Special Report, "Made to Order"]

3-D printing and additive manufacturing stand as sterling examples of how technology can escape the ivory tower and make their way into people's garages.

Since 1986, when it first began funding additive manufacturing, NSF has committed more than $200 million to additive manufacturing research and related activities, essentially sustaining and subsidizing the maker movement.

"Support from federal agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Defense (DOD), was instrumental in the early research and development into additive manufacturing," the United States Government Accountability Office wrote in their Report on 3-D Printing, which appeared in June 2015.

Today, NSF and DOD aren't alone in this effort. NASA, NIST and the Department of Energy are involved in 3-D printing and additive manufacturing R&D as well, expanding the materials, techniques and applications to which the technology can be applied.

This federal-supported foundational research has led to the development of many of the tools that play such a big role in DIY activities, from machine-controlled CNC routers, to Computer Aided Design (CAD) and the Scratch programming language.

New tools, like those designed by Hurst, are emerging all the time. And increasingly, they take into account the diversity of their potential users as well.

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At her makerspace at UMBC, Marylanders with intellectual disabilities, like autism or Down syndrome, learn to design and print 3-D objects using computer-aided design tools. In the process, students develop a new sense of themselves as individuals with the tools and knowledge to create objects of their own design.

"These are individuals who many people would discount and overlook and not think of as makers and we were getting them to do 3-D printing just like engineering students," Hurst said.

Presidential Seal of Approval

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On June 18, 2014, President Obama hosted the first-ever White House Maker Faire and issued a call to action that "every company, every college, every community, every citizen joins us as we lift up makers and builders and doers across the country."

Continuing the effort, this past June the Obama administration issued a Presidential Proclamation naming June 12 through June 18 the National Week of Making.

"Makers and builders and doers -- of all ages and backgrounds -- have pushed our country forward, developing creative solutions to important challenges and proving that ordinary Americans are capable of achieving the extraordinary when they have access to the resources they need," he proclaimed. "During National Week of Making, we celebrate the tinkerers and dreamers whose talent and drive have brought new ideas to life, and we recommit to cultivating the next generation of problem solvers."

At the event, the White House announced commitments from companies, federal agencies and school districts around the country, including pledges to create more than 1,000 makerspaces in the United States, and to expand access to the tools, design courses, mentors, and spaces to more than 4 million students.

On June 12th and 13th, the administration organized the first National Maker Faire, which brought 20,000 DIY enthusiasts to in Washington, D.C. for a making extravaganza.

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Not surprisingly, NSF and its researchers had a significant presence at the event.

"Our mission is in sync with maker ideals," NSF's director France Cordova blogged at the time. "We fund the pioneers: curious, motivated scientists and engineers who innovate and discover new insights into our world."

Scientific research has much in common with making. Both involve hypotheses, iteration, and testable outcomes.

Moreover, making is organically linked to designing - the cognitive and tactile activities that designers apply during the process of coming up with new ideas - which is seen as critical to engineering and much studied by NSF as a path to innovation.

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Above and beyond this kinship, making serves as a compelling motivator for getting people of all ages involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). But the area is so new, research into making is still lacking.

"We want to better understand how STEM learning and maker activities are connected, and how we can use this knowledge to improve both learning and teaching," Cordova said.

Makerspaces in expected and unexpected places

In addition to funding the creation of the tools and technologies that underpin making, the agency has helped launch several makerspaces in communities, schools and universities across the nation.

These spaces teach skills to students and act as living labs for the study of making and how it can be effectively taught and integrated into education.

Two makerspaces supported by the NSF - the CITRIS Invention Lab at the University of California, Berkeley and Nedlam's Workshop at Malden High School in Massachusetts - represent very different, compelling visions of what making is and what it can do for students.

Learn+Build+Launch

UC Berkeley's CITRIS Invention Lab opened in 2012 with help from NSF, which funded Paul Wright (co-founder) and Bjoern Hartmann (co-director) to plan and design the lab in the preceding years.

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The Invention Lab is not only a space for learning and building; it's intended to be a launching pad where students can turn ideas into new entrepreneurial ventures.

"Our mission is to usher the best IT and engineering ideas into the real world where they can make a difference for the better," said Wright, chair in mechanical engineering at UC Berkeley.

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Undergraduate and graduate students work independently in the buzzing, well-equipped lab and take courses like Eric Paulos' "Critical Making" class, or an interdisciplinary class on "Interactive Seating," co-taught by Hartmann, an electrical engineering and computer science professor, with Greg Niemeyer (Art Practice) and Bob Full (Integrative Biology).

At the National Makers Faire, graduate students from the lab showed off smart furniture they'd designed in class and demonstrated "Skintillates," an interactive electronic temporary tattoo invented in the lab that won a "Maker of Merit" award at the fair.

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"Unlike many of the more complex 3-D printing and design projects we hear about, Skintillates can be produced in much the same way kids create arts-and-crafts projects and cost less than a few dollars to make," said Joanne Lo, a graduate students at UC Berkeley and one of Skintillates designers.

Wright concurred and offered an even broader perspective: "We want to see a strong California economy, but we also want to see the evolution of excellent devices that promote human dignity, make cities work better, restore and strengthen health, preserve the environment, and bring people closer to each other and to the nature of the world they live in."

Making makers in Nedlam's Workshop

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Whereas the Berkeley program supports an elite group of college-age makers, Ben Shapiro and Brian Gravel from Tufts University created a makerspace in one of the most diverse high schools in Massachusetts, aiming to prove that making can help everyone learn and providing a model that schools across the nation can follow.

The project grew out of a community need. The Malden City Council was planning to take over the high school's underutilized woodshop and Dana Brown, the school's principal, reached out to Shapiro and Gravel to help save the space.

They in turn wrote a proposal and won a $300,000 grant from NSF to transform the woodshop into "Nedlam's Workshop," a makerspace where students create unique networked objects that interact with the Internet of Things.

According to a 2015 study by members of the Maker Education Initiative, white males are the primary users of most makerspaces. Nedlam's Workshop, on the other hand, is used largely by Haitian girls, according to Shapiro, recent immigrants to the U.S., many of whom do not speak English fluently and struggle with traditional classes. For these students, Nedlam's Workshop offers a critical, alternative mode of learning and expression.

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"Our research is anchored in identity and capability, but it's also about how to enable kids to do inquiry and authentic problem solving," Shapiro said. "We're creating a model by which all kids -- whether they're the top academic achievers or the bottom, fluent English speakers or not -- are vital to today's economy."

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The program began as an after-school program last winter and was taught as an elective last spring. This summer, the researchers began working with teachers from the school to determine how Nedlam's Workshop can be integrated into the existing curriculum taught at the High School.

"We're showing teachers the portfolio of student work and giving them a deep dive into what the students can do - even if they don't speak English," Shapiro said. "The next step is to work together to redesign a unit from their class for this making work."

Making, ultimately, is about empowering people to not just be consumers, but also producers of technologies that help them achieve important goals, according to Chris Hoadley, a program director at NSF and a making researcher himself.

"Projects like Nedlam's Workshop focus on how making can be part of school but also part of people's everyday lives," Hoadley said. "They broaden participation in STEM and also empower people more generally, which is so important in making our nation more just and equitable."

Other examples of NSF-supported makerspaces that help to diversify making include the University of Washington's CoMotion lab, which recently released guidelines aimed at ensuring makerspaces are accessible to people with disabilities, and programs at community colleges, like the one at Wake Tech in North Carolina, which received an $800,000 award from NSF to integrate 3-D printing into several programs, including mechanical engineering and biology.

"Through NSF's Advanced Technological Education program we have made significant investments in 3-D printing laboratories and relevant curricula specifically for community college students," said Gul Kremer, another program director involved in making at NSF. "Community colleges present an entry point to college education for many students today, including underrepresented minorities, and these efforts present significant increases in access to making."

Defining making

The maker movement is so new and diverse that it has a bit of a 'definition problem', according to experts. For that reason, it's critical for researchers and practitioners to describe the dimensions and intended outcomes that characterize their particular approach to making to determine whether they are successful.

"It's a turbulent sea out there right now, with museums, public libraries, universities, youth-serving organizations and makerspaces all getting into the game and exploring different approaches," said Al DeSena, an NSF program director and former director of the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

So at the same time that NSF is supporting makerspaces and the underlying technologies of making, the agency is also encouraging researchers to study how making happens at diverse sites, what the real benefits are, and how they can be measured, analyzed and repeated across the nation, whether in classrooms or extra-curricular settings.

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Two of the researchers doing this work are Erica Halverson, an Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Kimberly Sheridan, an Associate Professor of Educational Psychology at George Mason University.

Last winter they published a comparative study of three makerspaces in the Harvard Educational Review, based of their observations of sites in Pittsburgh, PA, Madison, WI, and Detroit, MI, each quite distinctive in its character and focus.

Despite the differences they found three unifying themes that they believe are common to makerspaces broadly:

  • Makerspaces' multidisciplinarity fuels engagement and innovation;
  • makerspaces have a marked diversity of learning arrangements; and
  • learning is in and for the making.

"Making as a discipline allows learners to take project-first approach, where learning to use tools and materials are all in service of getting your work done," Halverson said. "Most technical learning is provided just-in-time, resulting in a more robust understanding of how a specific tool or material allows you to solve problems."

The study doesn't represent the full range of makerspaces, since new spaces and models are cropping up all the time, but the initial case studies help the community think about and plan their spaces better.

However, they also found some ways that makerspaces weren't so successful.

"Makerspaces are good with initial experiences. 'It was great to make a robot that does X. See ya!'" Halverson said. "But to bring more people into complex ideas of representation and design takes a long time."

Halverson observed that there's often a tension in making between open-ended and structured activities. She and her collaborators wanted to determine which approach worked better under what circumstances and what happens when you package activities differently.

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To figure out the answer, they designed an experiment involving kits for making "brushbots" -- minimalist "robots" that use the head of a toothbrush as its body and the bristles as its legs.

In one condition, students created the brushbot step-by-step, with instructions provided by the educators. In the other condition, the educators gave the students materials, showed examples, and said, 'make something.'

They found that kids displayed more agency and interest in making things when faced with the open-ended circumstances.

"When is it appropriate to have a more structured and more open-ended condition? And can we be more mindful about when it's appropriate to do that?" they asked.

Their studies are leading them to design ways to improve long-term engagement, including integrating critique and asynchronous, web-enabled participation.

"How do we know what tools will 'stick' in terms of peoples' engagement over time?" Halverson asked. "That's the million dollar question."

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Research in the area is ongoing. Halverson, Kylie Peppler (Purdue University), and Yasmin Kafai (University of Pennsylvania) are preparing Makeology, a two-volume compendium of making research to be published by Routledge in 2016. It will be one of the first, but likely not the last, of many scholarly compendiums on the subject.

When every home is a makerspace

This last summer, with the launch of the National Maker Faire, may turn out to be a turning point where making enters the mainstream and becomes something more than a community of enthusiastic hobbyists and begins to truly transform how we build, buy and sell everything we use.

"Additive manufacturing holds the potential for disrupting existing and creating new markets," the GAO committee wrote in their report, "but the technology is in its relative infancy and it may be years or decades before it reaches levels of confidence comparable to what the industry has with the more familiar conventional manufacturing processes and materials."

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In May, NSF invited proposals for "transformative research ideas or approaches that advance the frontier of knowledge with respect to STEM learning and design thinking."

The solicitation encourages the community to submit ideas to:

  • study the processes and potential benefits of learning in the maker context;
  • test its role in improving formal and informal learning pathways;
  • investigate new approaches to design and innovation enabled by makerspaces and practices;
  • create new tools and knowledge for design and prototyping across all disciplines; and
  • further the understanding of innovation processes from prototypes through their transition to products.

That's a tall order, but one NSF believes the research community can achieve.

In the fall, NSF and the American Society for Engineering Education will convene a conference of leading making researchers from academia, industry and government to plan a path forward for the research into what works in making.

But really, this is likely just a preview of what's to come.

"The maker movement is potentially far more than a hobbyist fad or an educational tool, as valuable as they can be, because it prototypes a form of manufacturing that could end American reliance upon foreign industries and serve human needs better," said William Bainbridge, a NSF program director.

"In the future, distributed manufacturing could create most products locally, customized for local cultures and conditions, in relatively small workshops employing local people who learned their skills in the maker movement, connected by information technology into the Internet of Things."

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This sentiment - that additive manufacturing and 3-D printing have the potential to lead to a "new industrial revolution" - is shared by many and seems to be more than just hype.

For the first time this year, NASA 3-D printed a tool in space.

FabLab founder, Neil Gershenfeld of MIT, has moved from creating makerspaces to encouraging the design and creation of 3-D printed airplanes.

And in labs today, new tools and techniques are being pioneered, from bioengineering and materials science to robotic construction and nano-manufacturing, that will enable the next generation of making.

50 years from now, we may be printing martinis in home replicators like the crew aboard the Star Ship Enterprise; building our homes with bricklaying robots; and generating replacement organs on demand as Anthony Atala, director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has predicted.

The National Science Foundation and other government agencies are supporting the research, development and education that will make this vision a reality.

Towards the New Making Renaissance

In his Week of Making Presidential Proclamation, Obama wrote: "Let us renew our resolve to harness the potential of our time -- the technology, opportunity, and talent of our people -- and empower all of today's thinkers, makers, and dreamers."

In that vein, let's keep the spirit of making and "Making for All" in mind not just during this summer of making, but all year-round.