One of the few things I regret about being an online physics tutor is that I only get to help my students with theoretical work. Of course they sometimes ask me questions about how they should write up their lab reports but I never have the opportunity to help them “get their hands dirty” while investigating the real world by having their own ideas and testing them out.
When I was young I was curious about everything. Whenever anyone asked me what I liked to do my answer was always “I like to make stuff that does something.” By that I meant radios, cameras, telescopes, microscopes, airplanes, rockets, etc. Somewhere in my basement is a photograph of Venus and Jupiter that I took with a camera that I built specifically to photograph Comet Kohoutek in the winter of 1974. One of the very few advantages of living on a farm in the middle of nowhere was that I had access to dozens of tools, hundreds of surplus parts, and abundant scraps of a wide variety of materials. I am still using some of the same Sears Craftsman tools and rolls of electrical tape. My favourite thing about university was the physics labs. I was thrilled to use expensive laboratory equipment instead of the junk I had salvaged and/or built myself.
I ask every new student what they plan to get degrees in. Most of them answer with something in the life sciences but some mention engineering. When I ask the latter what they have built they are invariably disoriented by the question. Other than doing some heavily-supervised activities in school or possibly assembling some toy kits at home, they have never built anything more complex than a snowman. I feel very sorry for them.
This is why I am so excited about the maker movement that I mentioned in a recent blog post. I am also very pleased that Victoria has a makerspace. I have not been to it yet because I have appointments with online students at the times when Victoria Makerspace is open to visitors but that might change after most of my university students are finished with their courses in April.
This KQED blog post describes how makerspaces are having an impact on mainstream education.
“engineering programs could learn something from art schools when it comes to the application process. No art school accepts a student without examining a portfolio of work that demonstrates the student can do the work required required of them and has the potential to grow.”