DIY electronics has emerged as one of the most effective means of educating young engineers. Jason Kridner, Co-Founder of BeagleBoard.org and a 2018 Top Embedded Innovator, explains how “Making” is making this happen.
The Maker movement is mainstream. As co-founder of BeagleBoard.org, how do you see the Maker space evolving over the next three-to-five years?
KRIDNER: It’s been a very exciting opportunity for me to be involved in the Maker community. BeagleBoard.org is now celebrating it’s tenth year working with the community. Makers emerge from all ages and skill levels and it is great to see them leverage the huge ecosystem of people and projects in the BeagleBoard.org community. Everyone from tinkerers, students, first-time developers, and professionals are experiencing the power of enabling computers with collaboratively developed software to interact with the physical world around them.
One area we see evolving rapidly is the increased interaction between Makers, both online and off. Today the methods that provide access to chatting with one another, showing their projects, and sharing their experiences is exploding. What used to be swap meets, amateur radio, and text-based chat have become Makerspaces, long-range meshed networks, and video hangouts. This creates a speed for learning that is really encouraging, especially to a new user. We should not underestimate the importance of the feeling of accomplishment when a Maker feels proud and shares, especially for young makers. These increased interactions aren't just happening between individual makers, but between entirely different communities of Makers. Lessons are learned on a project in one community and that skill is taken to a project on different platforms. Support of BeagleBone via create.arduino.cc is an example. This cross-pollination of approaches helps ensure Makers' skill development doesn't become stagnant.
A trend I especially welcome is seeing Making go beyond an informal learning environment to include a formal one. Schools and colleges are embracing Makerspaces to encourage hands-on projects in and out of the classroom. Gaps in education are filled through understanding the relationships between theory and application. Guided instruction to inspired students should provide support to keep the Maker community strong.
Access to Maker tools such as 3D printers and embedded single board computers (SBCs) is being expanded through public and school libraries adding Makerspaces. These resources are being seen as imperative for free public access, similar to the development we saw when PCs were added to libraries. As this evolves, I anticipate growth in the workshops and training classes, summer programs and night courses, just as it did with public access to PCs.
And out of all of these I am seeing emerging artisans out of the Maker community learning to go from personal craft to professional. Many speak about the "new success story," and more and more makers will learn how to live that dream. Through innovative education practices, both formal and informal, the ability to create is transcending age and socioeconomic status. Being part of the Maker community is providing near limitless possibilities for anyone. With the tools that are available today, getting started and growing skills is something to which nearly anyone can have access.
As a pioneer of the Maker movement, what advice can you offer aspiring technologists looking to use open source technology in the creation of a commercial product?
KRIDNER: Commercialization of a product idea has never been easier than with the tools and skills developed being involved with the Maker community. There are three key areas that are developing that significantly enable Makers to take their ideas to commercialization.
The first is open source hardware. BeagleBoard.org supports completely open hardware, enabling any developer to be able to create and recreate designs with all the devices on it available for purchase at quantity one to any quantity desired. The freedom to get full design and component documentation, and do with them as you choose, is critical to going commercial. Open hardware is a developing consideration of those in the Maker community.
The second area is open source software. Linux provides a foundation where by many people and projects participate. There is a solid foundation where libraries and many projects can help get developers started. The road to commercialization is faster with this large and supportive community, which even includes professional consultants to help productize your prototypes.
Which leads to the third area, community itself. The Maker community provides ever expanding networking opportunities and support to ramp new projects to commercialization. I’d recommend to any aspiring technologist to not look only to the size of the community but to look at who is contributing from professional perspective and in the types of projects. A growing and supportive network is critical for the development of software and hardware support for rapid prototyping and also maintaining a commercial software base. A fundamental lesson Makers have learned about technology is they have to play many roles and develop many skills. Technology depends greatly on both mass manufacturing and scalable customization. Being inventive about process and supply chain can help you greatly in providing the right tools for other aspects of your inventiveness.
As a technologist, what can be done to ensure a consistent pipeline of young STEM engineers? How do we get youth in the U.S. engaged with CREATING technology rather than just consuming it?
KRIDNER: I’m constantly trying to figure out what kids think today. For me, a Z80, an EEprom and a Speaker were endless hours of excitement and entertainment. These few items were all I needed to get interested in programming. The first time I cut and pasted some code and made something to come out of that speaker, it was the best thing ever! “ Kids are experiencing technology today in a totally different way. They are digital natives born with embedded computers in their cribs.
We need to continue to champion the tools and activities that inspire youth, but never stop being critical of those tools and activities as well. Continually challenge youth to tell us how their tools can be made better. If they cannot create the technology themselves, they will not be prepared for when it doesn’t work.
Jobs are being automated. First it was factory-related jobs, now it is service related jobs. Students aren't getting sufficient STEM literacy to be part of the creation of technology. Many lack the problem solving skills to be effective at driving that automation, rather than being a victim.
Educational robotics is the compelling and effective way to reverse that trend. Lower-cost, easier-to-use and inherently collaborative platforms can help ensure these programs expose all participants to programming and electronics.
Robotics are different enough from kids own experiences today with using their devices to make it exciting. Robotics as a platform for technology education is simple enough to be accessible and complex enough to invest in a lifetime of exploration. Robotics using open source software and hardware is a great solution for increasing students’ access to tools that evolve and develop their creativity and problem solving skills.
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