June 24, 2016 – Whether through support for researchers designing new 3-D printing and additive manufacturing technologies or for educators developing new methods for hands-on, exploratory learning, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has contributed significantly to development of the U.S. maker movement.
One NSF-supported researcher at the forefront of this movement is Ben Shapiro, assistant professor of computer science at ATLAS Institute, University of Colorado Boulder.
Last fall, ATLAS Institute launched what may be the nation’s first undergraduate major in making: the Bachelor of Science in Technology, Arts and Media.
Conferred by the College of Engineering and Applied Science, the degree combines creativity and technology through a rigorous engineering curriculum, emphasizing critical thinking, problem solving and creative production. Students can opt to specialize in topics like sound, design, interactivity, animation, video and narrative media, and take largely project-based courses, allowing students to create and engineer artistic and functional works, including web and mobile applications.
“It’s been a smashing success,” Shapiro says. “As of this fall, we will have over 90 students enrolled in it. So, it’s really a Week of Making every week here.”
Students in the school benefit from using technologies and learning approaches developed through NSF-funded research, according to Shapiro. The students’ participation, in turn, advances Shapiro’s making research by allowing him and his colleagues to study how students learn and to use that data to generate knowledge for the field.
“Being a part of ATLAS has been wonderful for our work because there are many undergraduates excited to get involved in this kind of research,” he says. “And, thanks to NSF REU [Research Experience for Undergraduate] support, we have been able to support them doing so.”
Students enrolled in the Bachelor of Technology, Arts and Media program create products like “piano gloves” equipped with sensitive accelerometers and other electronics that enable one to synthesize music while playing an imaginary keyboard, and a bathroom mirror that recognizes when someone is standing in front of it and provides a weather forecast and summary of the latest headlines using a programmed Wi-Fi-enabled Raspberry Pi.
In addition to working with students in the ATLAS Institute, Shapiro’s team recently completed two units in local middle schools where kids made networked computer music technologies using tools Shapiro and his team have developed. In another project, graduate student Kari Santos, who works in Shapiro’s lab, taught a summer program using the same tools where girls made Internet of Things-connected devices and apps.
In the program, a pair of students wrote an app to enhance communication with one of their sisters, who is unable to talk, walk or express her wishes verbally. At home, the family uses a large picture board to ask if the sister wants to go for a drive or eat. The app they developed enables the family to have the same level of communication when away from home.
“Making is exciting because it knocks down walls,” Shapiro says. “It brings together computing, engineering, education, design, the arts and other fields under one umbrella: creating meaningful — and sometimes functional — products. In this way, making becomes a way to learn technical material and to learn to express and learn about a whole host of other ideas and to process an emotionally challenging experience.”