Martin Culpepper remembers spending five days a week in an MIT machine shop as he worked on the projects that would earn him two MIT degrees in mechanical engineering. He often came home smelling of oil.
“I think building is really important. It helps us learn,” says Culpepper, now a professor in that department. “I built many machines that didn’t work. Then I’d figure out what I’d done wrong with the math and physics and try again. Eventually, I succeeded.”
Culpepper now says that making things is key to innovation. “You can think about how you might do something, but cogitating will only get you so far. Sometimes it takes building a prototype to have that Eureka moment” where everything falls into place. Access to a prototype can also work in reverse, giving the inventor great ideas for other potential applications.
Hands-on learning has always been part of MIT’s culture, he says. So it’s not surprising, he estimates, that MIT has more square feet of “maker spaces,” or places equipped for building things, “than any other university on the planet”—at least 15 major maker spaces on campus by his reckoning, including the Hobby Shop, Edgerton Center, and the Center for Bits and Atoms.
“We’re in the midst of revamping the way we think about these spaces and how we run them,” says Culpepper, adding that the country itself is experiencing a kind of “maker revolution.” At the helm of the MIT effort is Culpepper, who last year was named Maker Czar for the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and who will soon work on similar problems for the entire Institute. It is his job to figure out how to make MIT’s maker spaces more productive and accessible.
One step to that end, he says, is increasing the number and size of maker spaces that are run by graduate students. That would help tackle one barrier to helping students make things: access to maker spaces in off hours when technical staff aren’t around but students are active.
“With proper training graduate students can take on a variety of activities,” Culpepper says. He notes that students handled safety, budgeting, planning, and more for the Institute’s first Maker Faire last fall. That event, which attracted nearly 3,000 attendees, featured more than 100 exhibits exploring the fun of making everything from instruments to robots.
Daniel Dorsch, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, says: “The chance to apply your skills to a real-world problem teaches you firsthand more than what can be learned in the classroom.”
Culpepper, along with MIT’s Information Systems and Technology, is also developing a Maker App that began as an effort to catalog the maker spaces and maker equipment on campus. Right now, he says, “if you’re in one maker space and it doesn’t have the machine required to build a given part, you’re stuck. But that machine may just be three buildings away.” His team is also looking at using the app to track the usage of machines in different maker spaces. “The software will give us insights into where to make changes so that our maker spaces work even better.” For example, MIT might add more machines that are in high demand.
Ultimately the idea is to share the app—and its results—with others, Culpepper says. “The big bang for the buck engineering-wise is when the software gets adopted by other universities and they start building and refining their own maker spaces; then we can learn back from them.”