My personal approach is to use embedded controllers to create autonomous robots and I start by bread-boarding discrete components into circuits. I find that the students that I work with have a greater understanding of how things fit together, how currents mesh and they have greater success trouble shooting failed circuit board. We progress to controller specific boards that allow students to focus more on software and less on fixing failed hardware but they understand that when problems occur, they could be from power, hardware, software and they have a solid approach to troubleshooting the problem. Your approach may vary, but there is common ground in the Maker Movement.
So what does a Mentor for Makers do and how can the engineering community help the movement? By becoming mentors and teachers, seeking out school programs and robotics clubs and making themselves available to kids, engineers and technicians can become the engines of the movement. Perhaps the more difficult thing to do is to be willing to hold back and accept the creative process. It has been said that engineers are too focused on solutions that they know will work to allow kids to dream. One of the criticism that I have voiced here before is that engineers tend to show kids the 'Elegant Solution' and then proceeding to explain why it is so good. It is hard to let kids discover in their own way, especially when you know that they are wrong and can never succeed in the way they are trying. If you can let them fail, you might be surprised when they discover a solution that you, as a professional had not thought of. More likely though, they will fail but they will have the satisfaction of knowing that they did it themselves and they will learn one more way not to try something. In this way, they may develop a sense that it is fun to create and that it is something that they want to pursue.
You have probably heard the quote from Bill Gates that “Success is a lousy teacher,” because it gives a false sense of the ease with which problems are solved. Mentoring kids is difficult. It requires some faith in the human spirit to allow them to move forward with an idea even if we can’t imagine their idea succeeding. It may fail, but it is the process that we want to encourage. Still, I don’t think that we should give incorrect information, just hold back when we ‘Know’ the answer. Where safety is an issue, we should draw a line but intentionally overloading transistors until they fail is, in my opinion, a great learning experience. I hope this has given you some encouragement to go out and help out a group or individual in their pursuit of all of this really cool, empowering technology. Drop me a line if you have questions about setting up centers and please correct me if I have incorrectly quoted or misstated the facts about the movement. These are my opinions but I am always willing to listen. See you in the trenches!
Your story is not that unusual among guys our age – I’ll speak for myself anyway, I am 59. I too scrounged around for parts, disassemble old surplus stuff and built things that worked. It does seem like things are so much easier now – look at the size of a Digikey catalog, Electronics Goldmine, MPJA, AllElectronics – the list goes on. You can get just about anything – and cheap - in a few days. And the availability of information on programming and hardware is at your fingertips on the web. I still have a copy of “The IC Hobbyist’s Handbook”, Thomas Powers in front of me but I couldn’t tell you the last time I opened it – I just point and click and in 30 seconds I have it in front of me to look at or print out with another click. Still, with all of that availability, kids don’t make things like we used to make things. They have no idea where to start, I think. They have no idea of the materials and processes that are out there or what is possible. I always recommend that students read the trade journals, go to HAM fests and talk to people who work with the kinds of things they are interested in. That is where you come in. That is why I am writing this blog. I am trying to help schools and libraries set up places where kids can come to learn how to make things again. The kids will come, spaces will open up – passionate, knowledgeable engineers are what we need now to help them. Thanks for commenting!
Thanks for that comment! As I said in my post, it is hard to hold back when you know that the kids 'Are wrong' - they may be, but letting them make mistakes IS part of the process. As for including ‘Art’ in STEM, I fought and won to keep my drafting and design class in the Science and Engineering program. One of the parents, a chemist, gave the example of visualizing compounds as enough reason for learning to draw. Drawing, like building things, is a process for thinking things through - not necessarily an end product.
Art and science have pushed technology growth for many millenia. I agree with the STEAM approach. You need to see a vision, understand its components, predict behavior and then blend in the best mix of new and old technology to make it work.
Mentoring is how most of us really went from newbies to doers. I agree that kids need to learn by doing. Failure teaches many more lessons than instant success. The key is to keep encouraging kids to learn and praise them for both success and failure (provided they learn from it).
Be a mentor, everyone wins.
Just my opinion.
I built my 1st crystal set at the age of 9 in '63. I then built my first tube amp powered by a 67.5 volt battery at 10. By the time I was 12, I was building transmitters and receivers out of an old 1952 ARRL handbook. I had to do it all on my own because in those days people that knew anything about that stuff were far and few between at least to me.
I had very little money. so that only went for parts that I couldn't find out of donated not working tv's or old military surplus stuff that I canibalized.
It must be something else to grow up with internet help, cheap computers, fpga and uC dev systems. Even when I was getting started in C back in the very early '80's a C compiler or even assembler was very expensive and a basic IBM PC XT was 5 G's.
Thanks for the comment. I too was making things before the term STEM was around and I still love to create something out of nothing. Boomerangs were a fun way to teach physics to kids but required them to develop some skill in woodworking. It seems that with so many 'Shop' classes disappearing from secondary school curriculums that kids don't have as much opportunity to make things. I disagree however, with the idea that art does not require mathematics and science. I worked in an art foundry for a summer and there is a reasonable amount of science and technology required to successfully pour hot metal consistently. Besides art foundry, artists are including embedded controllers in their interactive designs and kinetic sculptures. More importantly though, I think that including art helps students to learn to use the right side of their brain to create solutions out of ‘Thin Air’. Some links for the STEAM movement - http://stemtosteam.org/
Thanks again for your comments!
Thanks for the comment. I agree with your suggestion to have students build prototypes. Even with very little machinery, students can cobble a prototype together. Most of the robotics projects that I have built started life as cardboard mockups. True, not very functional but for me, holding a 3-D example helps me see problems with the design and to develop the next step.
Having been one "before it was cool", I love the maker movement. It has real potential to revitalize innovation in the US and elsewhere. I also strongly support Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives. (My daughter is a physics major.) However, I am confused about adding an art component (A) to STEM and making it STEAM. I agree that art and engineering are both creative endeavors, but (with rare exceptions) they are separated by a very wide gulf, and that gulf is mathematics.
As a mentor for a robotics team I can say without any hesitation: "Letting the students explore design solutions and make mistakes is the best way for them to develop both solid interests and understanding in the engineering realm". Again, the caveats of safety must be followed. One effective way to allow for students to explore design options is to ask them to describe their design and then provide them with schedule driven deadlines. An example best illustrates this approach. Student design proposal for a new grip on an arm, ask them to build a prototype in a week to "test" the idea. They get to try out their own idea in a limited amount of time and can learn if the approach will / will not work.