The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Maker Movement

UMass students, faculty, and community make space for innovation
  • Student Using Laptop and Electrical Components

The maker movement is bridging a gap in the research world as it is making even the most complex designs accessible to researcher and citizen alike.

The “maker” movement is flourishing, and UMass Amherst faculty and students are among those leading the charge. One of 153 colleges and universities nationwide to celebrate America’s tradition of invention, campus leaders recently participated in the first-ever White House Maker Faire by signing a letter to President Barack Obama, pledging to encourage and support new innovation for the betterment of the country.

The overlapping open-source, do-it-yourself, and maker movements are targeted at making technology cheaper and more accessible as they draw on the expertise, enthusiasm and support of the ‘crowd.’ While the open-source movement builds a virtual community around project “blueprints,” the maker movement focuses on providing access to the manufacturing equipment, community and education necessary to put those designs into action. Makerspaces can be hosted virtually anywhere, all united around the philosophy of sharing the capacity to innovate.

UMass Amherst graduate students Don Blair and Ben Gamari (Physics) have found that this methodology enhances their research, allowing them to tinker with and fine-tune research equipment at a fraction of the cost. Employing their respective expertise in networking and computer programming, they began brainstorming new ways to take measurements, ways to design the equipment so that anybody willing to learn could make it. They began attending open-source, maker workshops and seminars and then put together some of their own.

The movement is bridging a gap in the research world as it is making even the most complex designs accessible to researcher and citizen alike. Members of the community are sharing ingenious techniques to repair expensive instruments, allowing their colleagues to more quickly fix issues that arise and spend more of their time on the science at-hand.

 “We both realized, especially in academia and research, that a lot of the instrumentation is incredibly expensive and is not easy to use,” Gamari says. “People can become disconnected from the instruments from which they take their data.”

Blair and Gamari are working with the Massachusetts Water Resources Research Center (WRRC) and stakeholders in the region, gathering a local network of open-source enthusiasts as they work to develop an inexpensive, reproducible device for water quality monitoring. Pollution can come in many forms and is not always easily tracked—the more monitoring devices in bodies of water at various points, the more easily various sources of pollution can be identified. By making water quality monitoring technology more accessible, Blair, Gamari and the team are empowering the greater community to take stock in the waters that run through their backyard.

“It makes for better science, because you’re reproducing results in a wider context—and it also democratizes science,” Blair says.

UMass Amherst faculty as well as students are coming together to innovate and participate in the maker movement. Steven Brewer (Biology), Charles Schweik (Environmental Conservation and Public Policy) and Paula Rees (Engineering, WRRC director) have joined forces to organize a series of innovation workshops within the local community. Workshops range from showing middle school-aged students and their parents how to work with the Arduino—an open-source computer board originally designed for teaching beginner computer programming classes—to more advanced prototyping. These models serve as gateways to a nearly infinite array of innovations. An important goal is to provide students and community members a place where they can explore technology with some support. Their work is fostering a next-generation of tinkering, do-it-yourselfers that can innovate with today’s technology to solve tomorrow’s problems.

To increase interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) among middle school students, Rees, (also the director of the College of Engineering Diversity Programs Office) has brought teams of UMass students to middle school classrooms in nearby Holyoke and Springfield to work with another prototyping platform—E-textiles—and to solve a variety of engineering problems. E-textiles, or “smart fabrics,” are fabrics that enable embedded digital components and are therefore used for wearable computing. This project and others like it infuse “Arts” into the commonly used STEM acronym, resulting in the term STE(A)M. Last year, Blair worked with an afterschool program in Amherst to push the kids farther into product development. Rees, Blair, Brewer, and Schweik hope that by infusing science education with more creative elements, they can show students that successful science requires both sides of the brain.

“It’s so great to talk to the middle school students,” Blair says. “They don’t have any boundaries as to what’s possible.”

The team was recently awarded an internal Public Service Endowment Grant to continue this work in Amherst with an afterschool program that will promote do-it-yourself creativity and encourage students to find innovative solutions to problems they identify in their own lives. Together with Amherst Media, they are working to develop a program that introduces kids to the process of posing research questions. They have begun teaching groups to build do-it-yourself (DIY) based hardware instrumentation and will soon show them how to use these instruments to conduct field research, as well as analyze the resulting data. There will also be opportunities to build DIY-based electronics “just for fun”— earrings that light up or a creative bike light, for example. The grant will help the team allocate an actual makerspace for the community to share. The space will conjoin scattered resources throughout the community. It will be a space where UMass students can do service-learning outreach to help their younger counterparts and a space for five-college makers to regularly come together.

With guidance from Rees and instruction from Professors David McLaughlin and Baird Soules, engineering undergraduates are participating in the movement. The Electrical and Computer Engineering Department recently built a “Mach 5” facility, directed by Soules, which students use as a makerspace of sorts. In one of McLaughlin’s systems engineering classes, a group of students worked with middle school students to build a GPS-enabled collar for pets that would enable their owners to track their whereabouts.

Rees is working with Schweik, Brewer, Blair and others on campus to more broadly apply this kind of open-minded approach to innovation.

“By setting the spark in students at a young age, the hope is that more students will come into the engineering program with a creative, innovative mindset,” Rees says.

Amanda Drane'12

Photos: Amherst Media