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April 29 2013

White House Science Fair praises future scientists and makers

There are few ways to better judge a nation’s character than to look at how its children are educated. What values do their parents, teachers and mentors demonstrate? What accomplishments are celebrated? In a world where championship sports teams are idolized and superstar athletes are feted by the media, it was gratifying to see science, students and teachers get their moment in the sun at the White House last week.

“…one of the things that I’m concerned about is that, as a culture, we’re great consumers of technology, but we’re not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted,” said President Barack Obama, “and we’ve got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”

President Obama at White House Science FairPresident Obama at White House Science Fair

President Barack Obama talks with Evan Jackson, 10, Alec Jackson, 8, and Caleb Robinson, 8, from McDonough, Ga., at the 2013 White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

An increasingly fierce global competition for talent and natural resources has put a premium on developing scientists and engineers in the nation’s schools. (On that count, last week, the President announced a plan to promote careers in the sciences and expand federal and private-sector initiatives to encourage students to study STEM.

“America has always been about discovery, and invention, and engineering, and science and evidence,” said the President, last week. “That’s who we are. That’s in our DNA. That’s how this country became the greatest economic power in the history of the world. That’s how we’re able to provide so many contributions to people all around the world with our scientific and medical and technological discoveries.”

Unfortunately, the role models that far too much of the media hold up for young people are all too frequently pulled from the stage, screen and playing fields, as opposed to laboratories, universities and schools.

In recent years, the success of technology entrepreneurs has shifted that dynamic, but in the American academy, big time sports have been eating college life, with huge stadiums and rallies for stars and comparatively little notice given to National Merit awards or fellowship winners. When the President said in 2012 that science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and young people’s scientific achievements don’t belong in the back pages of newspapers, his media criticism was quietly scathing: a culture of celebrity is not geared to the more quiet, sustained achievement required to attain a graduate degree or patent, though both may have more enduring value to society than a pop album.

This is a dynamic that clearly troubles President Obama, and one that he has used the bully pulpit and the platform of the White House to drawn national attention towards over the past five years.

“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House,” said the President, in 2009. “Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example.”

In the years since, the White House has tried to carry through on that pledge, hosting three science fairs and involving national leaders in science education, including Bill Nye,”The Science Guy,” Reading Rainbow host Levar Burton, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

neil tysonneil tyson

“The White House Science Fair is a way of showing everyone that science is cool,” said Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, in an interview. Engaging the public about the wonders of the universe and encouraging kids to be curious about how our world works has been a core part of his career, driven by his infectious good humor.

Making science and technology education more fun

As Greg Ferenstein noted at TechCrunch, there were some pretty awesome inventions at the White House science fair, from mind-controlled prosthetics to improved cancer detection methodologies to a bicycle-powered water purification system. You can see a list of the White House science fair projects at and watch President Obama tour the exhibits on YouTube.

One of the notable components of the science fairs has been the involvement of kids from the maker movement. In the summer of 2013, the Maker Education Initiative will host a season-long Maker Party where students can learn, design and create.

“We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow,” said President Obama at the 2012 White House Science Fair, recognizing the long-history of creative innovation in American garages, basements and barns.

In 2012, President Obama famously helped young maker Joey Hudy to fire his “extreme marshmallow cannon.” 14-year old Ben Hylack, the maker of a telepresence robot, said that Makerfaire changed his life. In 2013, “Super Awesome Sylvia” represented Maker Faire at the White House Science Fair, showing the President her watercolor drawbot.

Experimenting with more independent projects that let kids tinker are important but only part of a puzzle that includes parents, teachers and libraries.


“We should be focused on getting kids ‘making’, yes, but that misses a tacit recognition that kids are by nature scientists,” said Tyson. “What we should be talking about is how to keep kids interested and get out of their way as they learn.”

For that to happen, we’ll need to encourage children to keep asking questions, teach them how to learn to answer them, and praise inquisitive students.

“Acts of curiosity are what make up acts of science,” he said. “Adult scientists are just kids who never grew up.”

November 04 2011

The maker movement's potential for education, jobs and innovation is growing

Dale DoughertyDale Dougherty (@dalepd), one of the co-founders of O'Reilly Media, was honored at the White House yesterday as a "Champion of Change." This White House initiative profiles Americans who are helping their fellow citizens "meet the challenges of the 21st century." The recognition came as part of what the White House is calling "Make it in America," which convenes people from around the country to discuss American manufacturing and jobs.

"This is so completely deserved," wrote Tim O'Reilly on Google+. "When you see kids at Maker Faire suddenly turned on to science and math because they want to make things, when you see them dragging their parents around with eyes shining, you realize just how dull our education system has made some of the most exciting and interesting stuff in the world. Dale has taken a huge step towards changing that. I'm honored to have worked with Dale now for more than 25 years, making big ideas happen. He's a genius."

The event was streamed online at Video of the event is up on YouTube, where you can watch Dougherty's comments, beginning at 58:18. Most of the other speakers focused on energy, transportation or other economic issues. Dougherty went in a different direction. "You're sort of the anti-Washington message, in that you guys just hang out and do great stuff," said U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra when introducing Dougherty.

"I started this magazine called 'MAKE'," Dougherty said. "It's sort of a 21st-century 'Popular Mechanics,' and it really meant to describe how to make things for fun and play. [We] started an event called MakerFaire, just bringing people together to see what they make in their basements, their garages, and what they're doing with technology. It really kind of came from the technology side into what you might call manufacturing, but people are building robots, people are building new forms of lighting, people are building … new forms of things that are just in their heads," he said.

"You mentioned tinkering," said Dougherty, responding to an earlier comment by Chopra. "Tinkering was once a solid middle-class skill. It was how you made your life better. You got a better home, you fixed your car, you did a lot of things. We've kind of lost some of that, and tinkering is on the fringe instead of in the middle today.

The software community is influencing manufacturing today, said Dougherty, including new ways of thinking about it. "It's a culture. I think when you look at 'MAKE' and MakerFaire, this is a new culture, and it is a way to kind of redefine what this means." It's about seeing manufacturing as a "creative enterprise," not something "where you're told to do something but where you're invited to solve a problem or figure things out."

This emergent culture is one in which makers create because of passion and personal interest. "People are building robots because they want to," Dougherty said. "It's an expression of who they are and what they love to do. When you get these people together, they really turn each other on, and they turn on other people."

I caught up with Dougherty and talked with him about the White House event and what's happening more broadly in the maker space. Our interview follows.

What does this recognition mean to you?

Dale Dougherty: I see it as a recognition for the maker movement and the can-do spirit of makers. I'm proud of what makers are doing, so I appreciated the opportunity to tell this story to business and government leaders. Makers are the champions of change.

How fast is the maker community growing?

Dale Dougherty: It's hard to put a number on the spread of an idea. The key thing is that it continues to spread and more people are getting connected. I know that the maker audience is getting younger every year, which is a good sign. That means we've involved more families and young people.

What's particularly exciting to you in the maker movement right now?

Dale Dougherty: Kits. We just wrapped up a special issue of "MAKE" on kits. Kits are a very interesting alternative to packaged consumer products. They provide parts and instructions for you to make something yourself. There's such a broad range of kits available that I wanted to bring them together in one issue. We have a great lead article by MIT researcher and economist, Michael Schrage, on how kits drive innovation. I didn't know, for example, that the first steam engine was sold as a kit. So were the first personal computers. Today we're looking at 3-D printers such as the Makerbot. We're also looking at the RallyFighter, a kit car from Local Motors, which you can build in their new microfactory in Arizona. Also, Jose Gomez-Marquez of MIT writes about DIY medical devices and how they can be hacked by medical practitioners in third-world countries to produce custom solutions.

What does making mean for education?

Dale Dougherty: Making is learning. Remember John Dewey's phrase "learn by doing." It's a hundred-year-old educational philosophy based on experiential learning that seems forgotten, if not forbidden, today. I see a huge opportunity to change the nature of our educational system.

How is the maker movement currently influencing government?

Dale Dougherty: The DIY mindset seems essential for a democratic society, especially one that is undergoing constant change. Think of Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance." Taking responsibility for yourself and your community is critical. You can't have a democracy without participation. Everything we can do for ourselves we should do and not wait or expect others to do it for us. If you want things to change, step up and make it happen.

The theme of the Washington meeting was "Make It in America." America is the leading manufacturing economy, but that lead is shrinking. As one speaker said, we have to refute the idea that manufacturing is "dirty, dangerous and disappearing."

Do we want to remain a country that makes things? There are obvious reasons many would like that answer to be 'yes,' but the biggest reason is that manufacturing has historically been a source of middle class jobs.

Some folks asked how to influence people so that they value manufacturing in American and how to get young kids interested in careers in manufacturing. One answer I have is that you have to get more people participating, to think of manufacturing as something that we all do, not just a few. We want to get people to see themselves as makers. This is the broad democratic invitation of the maker movement.

Flipping this a bit, how should the maker movement influence government?

Dale Dougherty: I see four things that the maker movement can bring:

  1. Openness — Once you get started doing something, you find others doing similar things. This creates opportunities for sharing and learning together. Collaboration just seems baked into the maker movement. Let's work together.
  2. Willingness to take risks — Let's not avoid risks. Let's not fear failure. Let's move ahead and learn from what experiences we have. The most important thing is iterating, making things better, learning new ways of doing things.
  3. Creativity — What excites many people is the opportunity to do creative work. If we can't define work as creative, maybe it won't get done.
  4. Personal — Technology has become personal. It's something we can use and shape to our own goals. Making is personal; what you make is an expression of who you are. It means something and that meaning can be shared in public.

What lies ahead in the space? DIY solar, bioreactors, hacking cars?

Dale Dougherty: That's what we'd all like to know. I don't spend too much time thinking about the future. There's so much going on right now.

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October 20 2011

Jason Huggins' Angry Birds-playing Selenium robot

I've used Selenium on several Java projects, so I was just assuming that the topic of Selenium would be germane to JavaOne. I sent the co-creator of Selenium, Jason Huggins (@hugs), a quick email to see if he was interested in talking to us on camera about Selenium and Java, and he responded with a quick warning: He wasn't into Java. "Python and JavaScript (and to a lesser extent, CoffeeScript and Hypertalk) are my true passions when it comes to programming," he wrote. I thought this was fair enough — very few people could call Java "a passion" at this point — and I could do my best to steer the conversation toward Java. Selenium can be scripted in whatever language, and I was convinced that we needed to include some content about testing in our interviews.

He also was wondering if he could talk about something entirely different: "a Selenium-powered, 'Angry Birds'-playing mobile-phone-testing robot." While I had initially been worried I'd have to sit for several hours of interviews about Component Dependency Ennui 4.2, here was an interesting guy that wanted to not only demonstrate his "Angry Birds"-playing robot but also relate it to his testing-focused startup Saucelabs. I welcomed the opportunity, and here's the result:

From what I could gather, Huggins' bot is driving two servo motors that control a retractable "dowel" finger covered in some sort of skin-like material that can fool the capacitive touch sensor of a mobile device. He sends keystroke commands through this Arduino-based controller, which then sends signals to two servo motors. The frame of the device is made of what looks like balsa wood. He's calling it a "BitBeamBot." You can find out all about it here and you can see it in action in the following video:

Relating BitBeamBot to Saucelabs and Selenium

In the course of the interview it became clear that BitBeamBot was the product of an off-time project. Here's how Huggins explained it: Imagine a wall of these retractable dowels, each representing a single pixel. if you could create a system to control these dowels, then you could draw pictures with a controller.

While working on this project, Huggins attended a Maker Faire and found some suitable technology. His creation of a single-arm controller then led to his big "eureka" moment: This same technology could create a robot that can play "Angry Birds," and if a contraption can play "Angry Birds," it's a simple leap to create a system that can test any mobile application in the real world.

Huggins went through a similar discovery process with Selenium. Selenium is a contraption that supports and contains a browser. You feed a series of instructions and criteria to a browser and then you measure the output.

With BitBeamBot, Huggins has taken the central software idea that he developed at Thoughtworks and applied it to the physical world. He envisions a service from Saucelabs, the company he co-founded, where customers would pay to have mobile applications tested in farms of these mobile testing robots.


Saucelabs is focused on the idea that testing infrastructure is often more expensive to set up and maintain than most companies realize. The burden of maintaining an infrastructure of browsers and machines can often exceed the effort required to support a production network.

With Saucelabs you can move your testing infrastructure to the cloud. The company offers a service that executes testing scripts on cloud-based hardware. For a few dollars you can run a suite of unit tests against an application without having to worry about physical hardware and ongoing maintenance. Saucelabs is trying to do for testing what Amazon EC2 and other services have done for hosting.

Toward the end of the interview (contained in the first video, above) we also discussed some interesting recent developments at Saucelabs, including a new system that uses SSH port forwarding to allow Saucelabs' testing infrastructure to test internal applications behind a corporate firewall.

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September 27 2011

High voltage music: Behind the scenes with ArcAttack

Anyone who's been to a Maker Faire is familiar with ArcAttack, a maniacal combination of music and mad science that uses half-million-volt Tesla coils to play songs. I caught up with Steve Ward, a recent addition to the ArcAttack crew, at Maker Faire NY and asked him about the technology behind the show.

How did you come to join ArcAttack?

Steve Ward: I actually started my own Tesla coil show in Chicago and worked remotely through the Internet with Joe Diprima, who is the main founder of ArcAttack. We were sort of conspirators on the technology for many years, and then just this past August, I quit my engineering job at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and moved to Austin, Texas. Now I'm working with ArcAttack.

How does the music actually get produced?

Steve Ward: We have a regular PC computer that is playing back MIDI sequences that we have preprogrammed. This MIDI is sent over a fiber optic cable to our stage area, where we have custom-built controllers that then initiate the sparking of the Tesla coil. We love using fiber optics for isolation. When we want to play a certain pitch — like a concert pitch A is 440 Hz — we then fire out 440 little lightning bolts per second, and each lightning bolt creates its own small sound. That vibrates the air at the right pitch, and then our ears hear it as that pitch.

What are the engineering challenges?

Steve Ward: This is a solid-state Tesla coil. I began working on these things back in, I think, 2004. Within the last few years, the reliability has been outstanding with them, but we do have a lot of issues. If the sparks hit some sensitive electronics, it'll take the system down. So making everything rugged in the sense of protection is the biggest challenge for us.

How could someone get started with their own project?

Steve Ward: There are some electrical safety issues, obviously. But if you treat it with respect, then it will respect you back. Don't go touching the thing while it's running or energized, that sort of thing. For anyone who dives into this hobby, you can't get into it too fast. You build up the knowledge of working with these things as you go. When I was back in high school, I built my first solid-state Tesla coil, and it probably took me a good six months to figure out what was going on and to get it working. You can build a small one for probably around $100 to $150.

Here's a clip of ArcAttack at a 2010 Maker Faire:

This interview was edited and condensed.

Kinect-Controlled Tesla Coils: The Evil Genius Simulator


  • The long slow make

  • September 15 2011

    The long slow make

    This weekend, World Maker Faire opens at the NY Hall of Science in Queens, our second annual event.

    Last year, I ran into Anil Dash at World Maker Faire and had a short conversation with him. Afterwards, he wrote a wonderful article, "Make the Revolution". Yesterday, I sat down with Anil at the offices of his media consulting firm, Activate, to get some long-term thinking on the Maker movement.

    This conversation with Anil touches on the social context of making, and what it means for individuals, families and communities. How will a "long, slow make" transform our society?

    Subscribe to the Maker Faire podcast in iTunes, or watch it on YouTube.

    Check out more videos of makers coming to World Maker Faire at YouTube/Maker Faire.

    For a preview of Maker Faire attractions and daily news, go to

    September 09 2011

    Developer Week in Review: iPhone 5 is still on hold

    Ah, a new school year. It's the time when my wife disappears into her office, not to be seen again until the late spring unless she sees her shadow. My son is grumbling about 60-question math homework assignments, and all the melancholy I feel during the summer about being the only family member on the clock fades away since I actually have the lightest schedule now. Revenge is sweet ...

    If you've been in a late-summer haze, here's a few items you may have missed.

    Bigfoot sighted using iPhone 5

    iOS 5The predictions in August were that the iPhone 5 (or 4S, or whatever it's going to be called) would be announced in early September. Then it was going to be mid-September, and now people are talking about early October. Now, I'm as much of an Apple fanboy as the next guy, but this obsession about the new phone seems to border on the absurd. I've only had my iPhone 4 for a year — I'm not even sure I would upgrade to a 5 unless it cures cancer or something.

    The only real reason to speculate about the iPhone 5 ship date is that it will probably coincide with the general release of iOS 5, which definitely is something to talk about, if only to other people who have signed the developer NDA. I mean the ... no, I can't talk about that. But the ... no, can't mentioned that either. Anyway, it's wicked cool, trust me.

    Your comprehensive legal roundup

    HTCLast week, everyone sued everyone. This item will repeat for the foreseeable future.

    Of particular interest is that HTC is using patents acquired from Google to strike back at Apple. The patent war is becoming reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis — I expect to hear a statement from Oracle HQ any day reporting a suspected transfer of patents from Apple to Google and vowing a blockade unless the lawyers turn back at once.

    The Makers are coming, the Makers are coming!

    For those who live on the East Coast, your annual chance to get your geek on is coming up next weekend. Maker Faire New York will be returning for a second year at the NY Hall of Science, and it's well worth the trip. I went with my son last year, and we'll be back this year as well.

    It's a great chance to see programming integrating with the physical world on a much more practical (or impractical) level than developers are accustomed to. If you've spent your life designing ecommerce websites, it can be refreshing to see a pair of honking-big computer-controlled Tesla coils blaring out music. It's also a Mecca for embedded computing and micro controllers, so if you like programming on the small scale, you'll see a lot to enjoy. If you happen to run into me there, say hi!

    Got news?

    Please send tips and leads here.

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    July 29 2011

    Maker Faire Detroit this weekend

    Maker FaireThis weekend, Maker Faire Detroit opens at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI. Charlie Wollberg framed it perfectly on his blog:

    What if Albert Einstein, Willy Wonka, Curious George, R2D2 and MacGyver threw a really big party? They’d invite all of their really cool friends: the artists, the inventors, the crafters, the mad scientists, the happy scientists, the curious, the creators, the hackers, the tinkerers.

    Sure, Leonardo da Vinci would be there showing off his new helicopter prototype and Rube Goldberg would be making people laugh with his convoluted contraptions and Grace Hopper would be taking apart all the clocks while writing new computer languages. It would be the kind of place where everyone who’s ever been called weird, crazy or geeky would feel right at home.

    Good news: That party is happening this weekend in Detroit.

    In our second year, we're able to see all kinds of examples of how makers have become resources for the community, contributing in Detroit and the region. Jeff Sturges is one good example of an inspiring maker. He's working in the community to reach kids and share the joy of making. We shot a video of Jeff this week, which starts in Eastern Market in Detroit. He brought kids to teach soldering. These kids learned to solder at the year-old Mt. Elliott Makerspace, located in the basement of a church and at the center of a supportive community. Seeing 8 year old Raven teaching teenage boys and adults to solder makes quite an impression.

    Follow the Show Daily for Maker Faire Detroit for news and featured attractions.

    June 06 2011

    Tinkering with technology education

    Does "making stuff" influence girls' interest in technology and engineering? From Young makers to e-textile designers to student IT support squads, the stories and research imply that the answer is simply, "yes, of course." Last month I had the very cool opportunity to discuss this topic as part of a panel at the National Coalition for Women in IT (NCWIT) Summit in New York City.

    Having flown directly from Maker Faire in the Bay Area where girls and boys were both deeply engaged in all kinds of tinkering — from making spinbots to sewing to crafts to soldering — it was a pretty interesting cultural shift to attend a conference dedicated to overcoming the gender gap in computing and engineering. It seems counterintuitive that a field that has such an egalitarian, merit-based culture and ethic as computer science should be so overwhelmingly composed of men.

    For many reasons (arguments range from equality and human rights to economic necessity) industry and the field of education have been working for decades to increase the representation of women in the engineering fields. Industry has looked to issues such as equal pay, women-friendly cultures, and benefits such as improved maternity leave and flexible working hours. Educators have focused on making science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses more attractive to young women, and to actively recruit young women into these fields.

    Alongside these top-down efforts to actively increase the number of women in tech careers, the grass-roots, bottom-up maker movement has been quietly attracting tinkerers and DIY-ers of both genders. At Maker Faire, 100,000 folks got together to share projects, skills, and materials for making. The maker culture thrives on open sharing of techniques and knowledge and innovation, often leveraging open source software and open source hardware. In a perfect example of what John Seely Brown refers to as "Pull," thousands of people are enabling themselves and each other to create freely using tools from the medieval to the hyper-modern. The goal is to make things: for their own sake, for utility, for artistic or technical exploration, but the side effect is the creation of a wide variety of the actual makers, themselves.

    It turns out that the context in which technology is presented has a large effect on how attractive it is to each gender. At the risk of gender essentialism, it seems that often boys are attracted to robot battles while girls are attracted to robots as a means of helping the disabled, for instance. Boys are attracted to competitive video games while girls are attracted to social software. In making, there are such a variety of materials and ways to participate that the appeal is much broader than traditional technology contexts. I spoke briefly with Dale Dougherty at Maker Faire and noted that both boys and girls would happily solder or sew in this environment. Dale pointed out that with the large number of entry points, a very broad set of people are attracted to making. These people then find it easy and enjoyable to move around within the various approaches and technologies.

    Sylvia Martinez, president of Generation Yes, advocates strongly for bringing this approach into formal education. At the NCWIT panel she talked about how her organization trains young people in schools to serve as in-house tech support. From manning genius bars to maintaining the school's hardware and software, these young people have the opportunity to become leaders and explorers in the use of tech within their schools. Around 40% of the students who participate in Generation Yes projects are young women — roughly twice the representation of women in industry. Sylvia also spoke about Seymour Papert's theory of Constructionism, essentially that children learn by doing. In the same way that professionals become expert as a side effect of doing their jobs, and makers become expert as a side effect of creating things, students learn both the complex skills of collaboration and innovation and communication as well as the hard skills of reading, writing, and 'rithmetic through doing meaningful, hands-on work.

    Tony DeRose, lead of Pixar's Research Group and founder of the Young Maker's program, talked about how the time outside of school allowed young people the freedom to experiment, get things wrong, go down dead ends, recover, and move forward. As in real life, where there is no single right answer and where trying something new has risk, Young Makers have the chance to experience the gratification of genuine accomplishment through innovation and perseverance.

    It seems much of the power of making is in its hobbyist timescale. There is time for the rhythms of hard grinding work and periods of flow, for brainstorming, collaboration, disagreement, and persistence. There is also tremendous learning about technologies, techniques, and materials that are far more authentic than most college courses. It provides lessons that stick because they are learned in a context of doing, rather than just listening.

    Tony founded the Young Maker organization more than a year ago, bringing together young makers, mentors, and experts to support young people in truly ambitious projects. In the first year, 20% of the participants were young women, in the second year 40% were. Tony notes that in his experience so far, the young women are motivated by working together and the young men by doing "dangerous things."

    The final NCWIT panelist was Leah Buechley, head of the High-Low Tech Program at MIT's Media Lab. Leah and her team have been researching how people combine high-tech and low-tech materials, such as electronic circuits with fabric for e-textiles, or conductive paint with paper. They developed the Lilypad Arduino, a washable, sewable version of the open-hardware Arduino microcontroller, and observed what kinds of communities adopted each of the technologies. Once again, the evidence suggests that the context in which technology is introduced is tremendously influential. Leah's research showed that out of all Arduino projects, only 2% were created by women vs. 86% men and 12% unknown. For the Lilypad Arduino those numbers were 65% women, 25% men, and 10% unknown.

    The maker movement is powerful on many levels. As with any important meme, it has powerful side effects, in this case as a welcoming culture and appealing invitation to technology for a broad audience that includes both women and men, seniors and kindergartners, technologists and artists. In the end, perhaps the most meaningful thing created by the maker movement will, indeed, turn out to be the new makers who find the tools, culture, and inspiration to create in new ways within its community.


    May 06 2011

    2 makers, 2 robots, 2 visions

    If you haven't been to a Maker Faire, it can be hard to describe the vast and diverse array of exhibitors and events, and no set of interviews can do the event itself justice. But recent conversations with makers Scott Bergquist and Ian Bernstein do offer a decent representation of what Maker Faire is fundamentally about.

    What follows are the stories of two very different robots, both of which will be in attendance (in some form) at the upcoming Maker Faire Bay Area.

    The errand bot

    Bergquist will be showing the Driverless Errand Car, a design concept for an autonomous vehicle system that delivers goods and runs errands. Bergquist admits that his idea is well ahead of the technologies required, but he wants people to start thinking about how society could benefit if fuel-efficient robotic vehicles were running errands without requiring human interaction. As he likes to put it, "Why drive a 4,000-pound vehicle to get a quarter-pounder at McDonalds?"

    In Bergquist's vision, these robots will do all the scut-work errands, like getting groceries or dropping a tax form off at the post office. Clearly, this would require massive infrastructure changes, such as having food distribution centers that could do order fulfillment when a 'bot arrived. But Bergquist believes it could be done economically, because the 'bots could travel longer distances to get their orders (since time isn't a factor), which in turn would allow for centralized warehousing.

    "Within my area, I can think of four Safeway stores that are within a 10-mile radius," Bergquist said. "Instead, there could be just one store, which would be inconvenient to a human shopper because everybody would have to, from all directions, come over to that one store. But for a humanless, driverless device, it wouldn't mind waiting in line to get its order. If it took it 40 minutes of waiting in line, it really wouldn't make any difference to you. It wouldn't make any difference to you if it made five trips a week instead of once a week. It wouldn't feel put out by having to stop at one distribution center to pick up canned goods and then driving further to another distribution center to pick up fresh vegetables, and then driving to another facility to pick up bread."

    Another unique feature of this system is that in Bergquist's design the vehicles run off of spring power. They would be wound up before leaving the house, and would function because they would be so much lighter than a conventional vehicle.

    "My [proposed] car is rather small," Bergquist said. "It's a little under four-feet long and a little under two-feet wide. It's about a meter tall. Without going into a lot of detail, for such a light vehicle, for such a limited amount of optional range, a spring-powered car could be a real no-fuel vehicle that would be extremely cheap because you wouldn't have an electric motor; you wouldn't have an electric battery."

    Maker Faire Bay Area will be held May 21-22 in San Mateo, Calif. Event details, exhibitor profiles, and ticket information can be found at the Maker Faire site.

    A basic ball with complicated guts

    SpheroIan Bernstein and his business partners will be bringing Sphero to Maker Faire. The robot, which is about the size of a baseball, rolls around, has LEDs that can turn the 'bot thousands of different colors, is loaded with sensors, and can be controlled and programmed from iPhones, Androids and PCs.

    Bernstein has no grand society-changing plans for Sphero, he just sees it as a cool platform for new applications. "We've had a lot of people come to us, and some of the ideas are educational," Bernstein said. "Training centers for college or companies and also K-12 — they thought this would be kind of a cool way to teach programming. Like Arduino, you can see other projects people have made."

    Although a robotic sphere may seem simple, Bernstein says that it's fiendishly hard to develop the underlying control software. "It's incredibly complicated to build a ball that moves in this fashion," he said. "We're literally using missile-guidance-type control systems in there. We've consulted with people that do NASA projects. What people see is just a simple ball. So it's minimalistic, but it's complicated on the engineering side." (Here's a video of Sphero in action.)

    Bernstein and his associates plan to have Sphero available for sale by the end of the year, while Bergquist's errand-running cars are more science fiction than product at the moment. You'll be able to meet these bots' creators, and get a sense for how the robots work, at this month's Maker Faire.

    March 16 2011

    Four Short Links: 16 March 2011

    1. JS Fiddle -- an online editor for snippets build from HTML, CSS and JavaScript. The code can then be shared with others, embedded on a blog, etc. (via Darren Wood)
    2. SideStep -- Mac OS X program that automatically routes connections through a secure proxy when you're on an unsecured wifi network. (via Gina Trapani)
    3. Junkyard Jumbotron (MIT) -- lets you take a bunch of random displays and instantly stitch them together into a large, virtual display, simply by taking a photograph of them. It works with laptops, smartphones, tablets --- anything that runs a web browser. It also highlights a new way of connecting a large number of heterogenous devices to each other in the field, on an ad-hoc basis.
    4. Kinect-Controlled Tesla Coil (YouTube) -- "now say: Fools, I'll Destroy You All!". (via AdaFruit)

    October 04 2010

    Innovation, education and Makers

    On the Monday following Maker Faire New York, the National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored a workshop titled "Innovation, Education and the Maker Movement." It was organized by Margaret Honey of the New York Hall of Science, Thomas Kalil of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and myself. I asked Tom if we could publish his talk, which opened the workshop.

    Remarks on Innovation, Education, and the Maker Movement

    New York Hall of Science, September 29, 2010

    Thomas KalilThomas Kalil: Good morning. It's a pleasure for me to be here.

    I'd like to begin by thanking Margaret Honey and Dale Dougherty for organizing the workshop, NSF for sponsoring it, and all of you for participating.

    To kick things off I'd like to provide some preliminary answers to 3 questions.

    First -- what are the key cultural, social, technological and economic dimensions of the Maker Movement?

    Obviously -- it begins with the Makers themselves -- who find making, tinkering, inventing, problem-solving, discovering and sharing intrinsically rewarding. These Makers have a strong "Do It Yourself" and "Do It With Others" mindset -- and making is an important element of their personal identity. That's why the tag line of Make Magazine is "technology on your own time."

    Those of you who had an opportunity to wander around the Maker Faire saw the dazzling array of Maker projects and Maker communities -- like the Madagascar Institute's 360 degree Swing of Death and jet-powered carnival rides or the cellphone-based sensors for carbon dioxide and ambient noise. We saw Makers like the chemist working to create some of the capabilities of a $10,000 Scanning Tunneling Microscope for a few hundred bucks, or the engineer who had the inspired idea to use reverse geocaching to design a wedding present -- a puzzle box that only opens on one spot on the planet.

    It's work done in many different mediums, including electronics, open source hardware, Howtoons, metal working, DNA, medieval weapons, wood, arts and crafts, robots, rockets, quadrocopters, Diet Coke and Mentos, and fire and other dangerous things.

    From a social perspective, vibrant communities are organizing around projects, technologies, and physical places. For example, one community called DIYDrones has developed a $500 unmanned aerial vehicle using open source chip sets and gyroscopes. Hacker Spaces and Maker Spaces are springing up around the country -- like Jigsaw Renaissance in Seattle, which seeks to encourage:

    Ideas. Unfiltered, unencumbered, and unapologetically enthusiastic ideas. Ideas that lead to grease-smeared hands, lavender sorbet, things that go bang, clouds of steam, those goggle-marks you see on crazy chemistry geeks, and some guy (or girl) in the background juggling and swinging from a trapeze ... Walk through our door with an open mind, and you are liable to be whisked off your feet and into a project you'd never have thought up. We encourage communal learning, asking questions, and pushing that red button. Go on. Do it. If you stick around long enough, you'll end up being the one creating projects and doing the 3-2-1 countdown for some new toy. Which is exactly what we hope will happen.

    Technologically -- we are moving towards what MIT's Neil Gershenfeld has called personal fabrication. Consider how Moore's Law has enabled the transition from the expensive and remote mainframe to the personal computer to the smartphone that fits in your pocket to the Internet of things. We are seeing the same phenomena with the dramatic reduction in the cost of the tools needed to design, make and test just about anything -- including $1,200 3D printers, CAD tools, machine tools, sensors, and actuators. Remember the replicator from Star Trek? It's rapidly moving from science fiction to science fact. What will happen as we continue to democratize the tools needed to make physical objects that are smart, aware, networked, customized, functional, and beautiful? I have absolutely no clue -- but I am confident that it will be awesome. As one maker put it, "The renaissance is here, and it brought ice cream."

    Economically -- we are seeing the early beginnings of a powerful Maker innovation ecosystem. New products and services will allow individuals to not only Design it Yourself, but Make it Yourself and Sell it Yourself. For example, Tech Shops are providing access to 21st century machine tools, in the same way that Kinkos gave millions of small and home-based business access to copying, printing, and shipping, and the combination of cloud computing and Software as a Service is enabling "lean startups" that can explore a new idea for the cost of ramen noodles.

    Makers are also becoming successful entrepreneurs. Dale just wrote a compelling story about Andrew Archer -- the 22-year-old founder of Detroit-based Robotics Redefined. As a teenager, Andrew started off entering robotics competitions and making printed circuit boards on the kitchen table. He is now building customized robots that transport inventory on the factory floors of auto companies. With more entrepreneurs like Andrew -- we could see a bottom-up renaissance of American manufacturing.

    Second, why does the Obama Administration believe that the Maker phenomena is important?

    As you know, President Obama has made science, technology, engineering and math a top priority, and in his inaugural address he honored and celebrated the "risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things."

    In his November 2009 speech launching the Educate to Innovate campaign and public-private partnerships like National Lab Day, the President said:

    Students will launch rockets, construct miniature windmills, and get their hands dirty.  They'll have the chance to build and create -- and maybe destroy just a little bit -- to see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things.

    So the President is a strong supporter of hands-on, project-based approaches to learning.

    After all, we wouldn't teach kids how to play football by lecturing to them about football for years and years before allowing them to play. And if education is about the "lighting of a flame not the filling of a pail" -- we should be putting the tools of discovery, invention and fabrication at the finger tips of every child -- inside and outside of the classroom.

    Several federal agencies are beginning to support these concepts.

    Zach Lemnios, our Director of Defense Research and Engineering, has made STEM education a priority. Our DARPA Director, Regina Dugan, has called for a "renaissance of wonder." Recently, DARPA announced that it is launching a new initiative called MENTOR -- Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach. DARPA's goal is to deploy 3D printers in a thousand high schools, and to enable student teams to develop and build vehicles such as mobile robots and go-karts.

    NSF has been supporting some great work by academic researchers, like Hod Lipson's Fab@Home project and Neil Gershenfeld's global network of Fab Labs.

    If we make the most of these opportunities -- I am confident that more students will get excited about excelling in STEM subjects and pursuing STEM-related fields.

    More students will be empowered not just to get a job -- but to create the industries and jobs of the future. More graduates will pursue mechanical or electrical engineering as opposed to financial engineering.

    More inventors will have an idea that could address the grand challenges of the 21st century, such as solar cells as cheap as paint or tumor-eating bacteria.

    More citizens will be able to engage effectively in policy debates on scientific and technological issues, such as energy, climate, sustainability, and bio-ethics.

    Of course, the democratization of technology has risks as well as benefits. But I believe that the benefits will far outweigh the costs -- and that the United States should actively promote distributed innovation.

    Third -- what are my hopes and dreams for this workshop?

    I asked Margaret and Dale to convene this workshop because it was my strong sense that there is not nearly enough interaction between Makers on the one hand and STEM educators, researchers, funders, and policy-makers on the other.

    The history of innovation teaches us that new ideas are almost always the result of novel combinations of existing ideas.

    So -- just imagine if there was more two-way traffic between the Maker and STEM education communities -- in terms of people, partnerships, ideas, and tools.

    What are the projects and initiatives that the Maker and STEM communities should be co-designing and co-creating? What are the big ideas, compelling goals and concrete "next steps" that would inspire individuals, companies, foundations, educators, museums, non-profits, and government agencies to work together?

    To be a bit more specific, what would career and technical education look like after a Maker make-over?

    What would teams of students build with access to a 3-D printer, a Tech Shop, powerful but easy to use CAD tools, and an experienced mentor? What foundational knowledge and practical skills would they acquire along the way -- and what real-world problems could they solve?

    What are the biggest barriers to bringing Makers and their tools into the classroom and informal learning environments, and what experiments should we launch to overcome or route around these barriers?

    How do we make a special effort to engage women and under-represented minorities?

    Recently, President Obama announced that over 100 CEOs had responded to his call to action by joining an organization called "Change the Equation." These CEOs are dedicated to supporting great teachers and inspired learners, and maintaining a long-term national commitment to STEM education. What role could the private sector play if they embraced the Maker Movement?

    I know that you have many questions and ideas of your own. I'm hoping that by the time we leave today we will have some concrete ideas that are worth pursuing -- with an initial hypothesis about the who, what, where, when, why and how.

    Thanks again for coming -- I am really looking forward to the discussion.

    Thomas Kalil is the Deputy Director for Policy, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    September 24 2010

    A World's Faire for Makers

    newyork_2010_badge_200x200.jpgCome see what happens when we imagine the world differently!

    The first Maker Faire on the east coast takes place this weekend on the grounds of the New York Hall of Science in Queens, the site of the 1964 World's Fair. The NY Hall of Science is a beautiful location and even if you know it, you might be surprised to see it decked out as the center of Maker Faire exhibits and activities.

    A celebration of the DIY mindset and creativity, Maker Faire brings together engineers, artists, crafters, tinkerers and scientists. If you're in the New York area, please join us and bring your family for a great day. Help us spread the word to your friend.

    Here are some highlights for the weekend:

    • Chris Anderson of "Wired" kicks off our talks at Noon about "The Next Industrial Revolution" on Center Stage, which is the auditorium inside the Hall of Science.
    • ArcAttack! will perform on the hour and half-hour in the amazing Great Hall, a cathedral to science built for the 1964 World's Fair. Joe DiPrima and his musical Tesla coils are fresh from a run to the semi-finals on "America's Got Talent."
    • "Scientific American" Presents: Scientist-Makers in Action, a panel of five leading researchers will talk about how the maker mindset applies to what they do. Moderated by George Musser, the space sciences editor at "Scientific American" magazine. From 3-4:30 pm on Center Stage
    • "Cooking for Geeks" author Jeff Potter at 11 am on Maker Square Stage, Saturday and Sunday.
    • Stephen Wolfram will speak Saturday on "Do-It-Yourself Computation" at 5 pm on Center Stage.
    • "Tinkering School" founder and author Gever Tulley will talk about "Thirty Minutes of Dangerous Ideas and Dangerous Activities" at 12:30 pm Saturday and 1 pm Sunday in the Maker Square stage.
    • "Microscope from a Cell Phone" by Eric Rosenthal will take place Saturday 2:30 pm in the ITP Cafe inside NYSCI on the lower level. The ITP Cafe, organized by Tom Igoe, highlights the work of students and professors, past and present, of the ITP program at NYU.
    • "Thinking as a Scientist" on the joys of scientific discovery by Steve Jacobs as "Wizard IV" three times a day on the Rocket Stage in Zone A.
    • "Hands-on Makerbot" demo by Bre Pettis at 5:30 pm Saturday on the Make Demo Stage in Maker Shed.
    • Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-Chief of "Make Magazine" and co-editor of Boing-Boing, talks about his book, "Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World" at 6pm Saturday on the Center Stage.
    • A panel on "Hackerspaces and Makerspaces" begins Sunday at 11 am on Center Stage, which is the auditorium inside the Hall of Science. It will be followed at noon by author Steven Levy talking about his book "Hackers."
    • Jules Pieri of The Daily Grommet will talk Sunday at 12:30 pm about "Citizen Commerce" on the Maker Square Stage in Zone C.
    • Battle-of-the-Science Bands in the Rock-It Science Caberet, organized by "Science Friday" runs on the Rocket Stage from Noon to 1:30pm and 4pm to 5pm Saturday
    • Meet editors from "Martha Stewart Living" and see projects from their October issue, located in Zone B.
    • Can you build your own car? Jay Rogers of Local Motors explains in "Make C.O.O.L. Cars" at 2 pm on Center Stage.
    • "State of the Arduino" by Massimo Banzi at 3 pm on Center Stage

    A full schedule of events can be found on the Maker Faire site. Tickets and information on transportation and other logistics can also be found at

    For updates, tips and reviews of Maker Faire, follow us at: or on Twitter at @makerfaire and the hashtag #makerfaire.

    Open Hardware Summit

    Yesterday, the Open Source Hardware Summit took place at the NY Hall of Science. More than 300 attendees came together for the event, many of them meeting face-to-face for the first time. It is one sign of the growth and health of this core community that is a major re-thinking and re-working of the design and development of hardware. (Congratulations to organizers Alicia Gibb, Ayah Bedir and Peter Semmelhack.)

    What I think we're seeing is the emergence of independent hardware developers. Increasingly, engineers have the opportunity to work for themselves -- developing products and processes by themselves or in small teams. They can get access to good facilities and expertise without being part of a large company. They get to do what they love doing, and take on the risk of succeeding or failing. Most importantly, they're able to keep fueling the fire that made them decide to become an engineer in the first place.

    Come meet them at Maker Faire -- as President Obama called them "the doers, the risk-takers, the makers of things."

    July 21 2010

    Detroit Can Do Camp - July 29

    MFDetroit_Can_Do_Camp_F1.jpgAs part of the week leading up to Maker Faire Detroit, we have organized Can Do Camp for Thursday, July 29 at Eastern Market in Detroit. Can Do Camp is an informal day for makers to meet each other and explore the DIY mindset. This mindset is a powerful and positive force for building hands-on communites as well as fostering innovation and developing a diverse, creative culture. Can Do Camp will bring together what President Obama called "the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things."

    In a recent blog post, entitled "Catastrophe Thinking," @NutureGirl pointed out that if you want to make change, you have to change the story. She suggests that we can't keep repeating awful stories, such as we hear about Detroit, and expect things to change. Maybe it's time to create a new story for Detroit, and that story is about what people are already doing and what all of us can do by working together. It's why we're organizing Maker Faire Detroit at The Henry Ford (July 31-Aug.1). If it was the can-do spirit that built Detroit, can that same spirit re-invent Detroit?

    (For reference, Web 2.0 was a new story about the web, pointing out that there were hackers and entrepreneurs at work on a new generation of applications, and that the bust following the boom was behind us. Telling the right story at the right time can be powerful.)

    The venue for Can Do Camp is Eastern Market in Detroit. Eastern Market has made the transition from a meat-packing district to a large farmer's market that draws people from all over. This marketplace is the center of a growing urban agriculture movement. Near Eastern Market is where a new hackerspace (OmniCorpDetroit -- OCD) will be opening soon.

    At Can Do Camp, Tim O'Reilly will be talking in the afternoon (and Can Do Camp follows loosely the pattern of FOO camp, which Tim organizes). Tim is coming because he recognizes, as do I, that doing something in Detroit matters. However small, it is worth doing and worth caring about Detroit even if you don't live there. As I've written before, Detroit's problems are our problems. Yet regardless what anyone says, what really matters is tapping into the energy and ingenuity of the tech and creative communities in the region.

    Can Do Camp is open and free of charge. (And there's free beer at the end of the day.) If you'd like to join us, please register (mainly to keep a headcount for lunch) by sending an email to for an invitation. For more information on the program, please visit the Can Do Camp website.

    I'd like to thank Lesa Mitchell and the Kauffman Foundation for supporting this event, along with our partner for Maker Faire Detroit, The Henry Ford, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the New Economy Initiative.


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