on May 7th, 2008

Dear colleagues

There is an apparent lack of enthusiasm in our children for building mechanical, electrical and electronic gadgets and this has become one of my pet peeves. Tinkering around with gadgets, I believe, results in the development of a passion for science and engineering from an early age. This is essentially what we, as established technicians, engineers and scientists, were doing in our workshops in the old days - admittedly often working in solitude.

But to my delight there are some incredible innovations afoot, including gadgetry and events around the world, which look to change this trend. There are technical fairs in the world today which are stunning in their scope. For example, the MakerFaire ('Build, craft, hack, play, make'), is a two day fair in California held every year in May, and has the usual gathering of geeks supplemented by backyard scientists, engineers, artists and craftspeople building fire breathing robots, giant motorised cupcakes (?), rockets and hundreds of other exhibits. A remarkable 40,000 attended the event held last year. The faire beckons you with the spiel: '..with its eclectic mix of wild and wondrous creations, blending art and science with engineering and craft'. The stands varied greatly and included intelligence and creativity; twin Tesla coil towers demonstrating manmade lighting, 3D printers making objects using sugar, a steam powered boat, shy plants,  robogames with grudge robots, a fab lab, lasers and Faraday cages. One of the gadgets (a multi touch table) made for $500 is reportedly equivalent to a $9,000 product from Microsoft.

Other trends are driving this rising do-it-yourself innovation too. The most popular is the ready availability of inexpensive or free parts - from bits out of the motion control parts of your hard drive, to digital cameras, to computer monitors and digital wireless access points. You can thus perform aerial photography by combining a kite with a digital camera relaying data back wirelessly to a computer. And the Internet enables easy communication and sharing of ideas with sites such as instructables.com - a great meeting place for inventors. Finally, everything is becoming open source and interconnectable - build something and connect it easily to another device.

I firmly believe that tinkering with technology builds innovation and encourages young people to consider science and engineering seriously as careers.

So what should we do:
• Look out for and participate in your local fair promoting science and engineering gadget building
• Make one – if there isn't one - and get your local schools and universities involved
• Get your company to sponsor it - the kudos for your firm will be enormous
• Promote it as an annual event and make sure it breeds to other cities
• Get it promoted at the highest and widest level - from the premier of the state all the way down to your local school
• Add in a dash of art and culture to really liven it up
• Ensure everyone has fun, that science and engineering is enjoyable
• Try to commercialise the really great ideas
Perhaps James Klass is right about some of the demos at these fairs when he observed wryly that:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo.

(This plays on Arthur C Clarke's comment:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.)

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

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