Tinkering -- that hands-on, garage-based tradition which sparked inventions ranging from the airplane and electric light bulb to the Apple computer -- is making a comeback among average Americans, promising to change our lives for the better on several fronts.
Known by such monikers as DIY (Do It Yourself) and the Maker Movement, its resurrection, fueled by the current economic downturn and the falling cost of high-tech tools and materials, stands not only to boost innovation and change how science is taught in the classroom, but could herald a new industrial revolution, suggest the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and other luminaries.
The potential power of this movement is indeed thought-provoking. It rests on DIYers (who range from young students to everyday adults) believing that the average person has the ability to understand and apply technology in ways like never before, enabling ordinary individuals to build, even invent, meaningful creations of their own that they are passionate about -- from robots and sophisticated LED (light emitting diode) systems for movie film production to energy-smart conveniences for the home.
Through robust support networks that they've developed nationwide, DIYers delight in joining with like-minded friends, mentors and peers (either online or in-person) to tinker, create, hack and re-use materials, while learning to use such tools as computer-controlled table saws, 3-D printers, welding equipment and laser cutters to produce prototypes of their creations.
For me, as founder and chief organizer of the U.S.A. Science & Engineering Festival (the nation's largest celebration of science and engineering), the merging of DIY with technology represents a vibrant breath of fresh air across America, particularly what it means for inspiring the next generation of innovators. And I am not alone: Educators are realizing that hands-on experiences represented by such activities as tinkering and building may be one of the most powerful keys to improving STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education) in this country. That's because students learn best by doing, especially when done in an engaging environment with peers and mentors.
Not surprisingly, engineering schools across the country, for example, report that undergrad students are showing an enthusiasm for hands-on work in DIY technology activities that hasn't been seen in years.
DIY also cannot help but to have a positive impact on the human spirit itself, says Naomi Lamoreaux, an economic historian at the University of California, Los Angeles. "The really dynamic times in our history are times when you have lots of ordinary people who think they have a chance to make a difference," she opines.
Yes, the chance to make a difference is indeed a powerful motivator, especially for young students. That is why the U.S.A. Science & Engineering Festival hosted by Lockheed Martin this April is devoting a significant portion of the event to exciting, hands-on DIY encounters -- all designed to inspire budding inventors and entrepreneurs with ideas, tools and resources to help them make their dreams a reality. From robotic technology to amazing desktop manufacturing technology that makes prototype development easy and cost-effective, future innovators will find it all during the Festival's finale Expo (as well as in the Robot Fest and DIY Expo pavilion) in Washington, D.C. on April 28-29.
The Festival is also a fantastic place for technical experts of all kinds to learn about the amazing advances that have been made in technology to help them make product prototypes find designs online for parts and components, and meet an array of experts to help them bring their product ideas to life.
Participants and activities such as the following will make the Festival an unforgettable one-stop experience in DIY:
--Organizations like MakerBot Industries, Fab Lab DC and Fab@Home by Cornell University and Dassault Systèmes Americas will demonstrate how to develop product prototypes via digital fabrication and 3D printers, while Sparkfun Electronics will show how to develop new product ideas more easily and inexpensively through electronics and microcontroller kits. The Festival will also feature an array of robotic technology ranging from military, manufacturing and surgical robots to more entertaining robots like R2DC's Star Wars droids and other exhibits that allow attendees to build their own robots.
--At the DIY Expo, budding entrepreneurs will be able to network with members of various "hackerspace" groups, such as the Baltimore Node, Unallocated Space and HacDC, who work collaboratively to network, socialize and develop technical solutions and new innovative products in their spare time, simply because they love to tinker with new ideas, create something from nothing, and solve problems!
--In addition, the Festival also features a Book Fair that includes some of the leading authors and experts in the DIY world, including William Gurstelle, author of The Practical Pyromaniac. Gurstelle, a professional engineer, has been researching and building model catapults, ballistic devices and flamethrowers for more than 30 years. Dustyn Roberts, author of Making Things Move: DIY Mechanisms for Inventors, Hobbyists and Artists, will also appear at the Festival. Roberts, also an engineer, started her career at Honeybee Robotics working on a project for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission.
The late Steve Jobs (who was perhaps the ultimate modern-day DIYer), was right when he said individuals who invent, build and make things have the power to change the
world -- or at least a part of it.
Follow Larry Bock on Twitter: www.twitter.com/usasciencefest