The maker movement is do-it-yourself culture writ large, as all kinds of people—hackers and tinkerers, scientists and inventors, designers and artists, academics and students—come together in makerspaces to experiment, collaborate, prototype, produce, and share. And it’s coming to DePaul.

With a grant from the Innovation through Collaboration Initiative, Eric Landahl (an associate professor and director of the graduate program in physics) and Bernhard Beck-Winchatz (a professor in STEM studies) are designing a class that reflects maker-movement concepts. Landahl explains why that’s special: “The values of the maker movement—a ‘don’t buy it, make it’ attitude, self-motivated experimentation, real-world applications, and a communal sharing of outcomes—are exactly what we want to encourage in the classroom. In our maker class, students will learn science by doing science.”

Expected in 2018, the new class will be an example of Science as a Way of Knowing (SWK), a best practice in instruction that promotes an understanding of science as a dynamic process. Beck-Winchatz is enthused about how the class fits into the bigger picture of science inquiry at DePaul: “Through science, we can come up with an idea and test it empirically—that’s powerful. Our maker class will enable students to ‘get it’ because they’ll actively conduct original inquiries, make discoveries, and correct their mistakes. We won’t be looking for ‘right’ answers. But we’ll expect students to step back and think about how science works.”

New Thinking

The maker movement is the convergence of several global, timely trends, as Landahl explains:

“First, there’s the Silicon Valley startup culture which puts a premium on entrepreneurialism. Second, the do-it-yourself movement—people are sewing their own clothes, brewing their own beer, building their own computers. Third, we’ve got crowd-source funding, like Kickstarter which reports that in the past seven years 12 million people have pledged $2.6 billion to support 112,000 projects. Next, there are the hackers who repurpose technology and open-source advocates who share free software. Finally, add in digital manufacturing and 3D printing, and what emerges is a movement that’s revolutionary in its thinking and its impact. I think the single most important aspect of the maker movement is the sharing: The ‘making’ happens in communities. But these maker communities don’t exist in universities. Why not?”

“They should,” adds Beck-Winchatz. “At its heart, the maker movement is an approach to learning; it’s a way of thinking about creativity as a process. How do we, as teachers, convert students’ curiosity into action? Conventional lab classes are necessary, of course, but the experiments’ outcomes are known in advance and, if you don’t get the right results, you’re wrong. Where’s the incentive in that? In the maker movement class, we’ll be tackling questions that don’t have set answers and, in doing that, we’ll boost students’ understanding of scientific method and their confidence in solving problems. That’s a good lesson for learning and for life.”

A Hint of Things to Come

Landahl already applies the “don’t buy it, make it” principle in how he teaches applied physics:

"In my electronics class, students use a $30 disposable, single-board computer to build a gizmo—say, a computer program or a data collection device—which allows them to interact with the world in a certain way. Turns out, students are super-motivated when they can own the technology and work together. It’s like dumping a box of Lego on the floor and saying, ‘Now, what can you build?’ I almost have to put the brakes on them; they’re that ambitious. Of course, they still have to apply the laws of physics to solve a problem—that’s the learning outcome for the class—but they also end up proving to themselves the underlying science of those laws. And that’s awesome.”
 
Beck-Winchatz also has the heart of a maker, as evident in his class “Science at the Edge of Space” in which students send a high-altitude balloon into the earth’s atmosphere to test the effects of pressure, temperature, and radiation on everything from sounds waves to DNA (http://resources.depaul.edu/distinctions/featured-stories/Pages/Serious-Science-Seriously-Fun.aspx).

“The students in this class are really maker-scientists,” he says. “They decide what they want to measure, build the payloads, launch the balloons, retrieve them, and then analyze the data they’ve gathered.”

And in true maker spirit, Beck-Winchatz is bringing scientific ballooning to the community at large. “One maker goal is ‘citizen science’—science is not just for scientists! That fits perfectly with my research: Anyone can launch a balloon and collect data about air quality. So, with a colleague—Mark Potosnak, an associate professor in Environmental Science and Studies—I’ve applied to NASA for a grant to launch hundreds of small balloons to collect data over a wide area and in remote places. We’ll be working with three collaborators: Pontiac Township High School in Illinois, the University of Minnesota, and Omaha Metropolitan Community College. This a real maker project, with all kinds of people, all over the Midwest, controlling the technology and conducting the experiment.” 

Lasting Outcomes

The new maker class will teach the fundamentals of physics to non-science majors. As a SWK class, it will enable students to grasp a new way of understanding the world, which has practical benefits.

“Learning how to put yourself into the shoes of someone with a different perspective is important in an absolute way: No problem in the real world is solved with a limited point of view or one discipline,” says Beck-Winchatz.  “Better thinking, better society, better life—that could be a maker movement motto.”

To see examples of knowledge sharing in a large and prospering makerspace in Chicago, visit the website of Pumping Station One (http://pumpingstationone.org/).