A secret weapon seems to be emerging in the challenge to attract more students into STEM fields—the so-called "Maker Movement"—a rogue groundswell of people harnessing technology and engineering into an egalitarian pursuit that is decidedly "cool."
The movement began about a decade ago as a community of hobbyists exchanging techniques on the Internet on how to create and modify gadgets and gizmos. It has since grown into a worldwide community of passionate do-it-yourselfers who combine science, engineering, and art to create, well, anything you can imagine.
There are no bounds on what counts as a Maker endeavor. Projects can be purely artistic or can use complex electronics. What they share is the spirit that anyone, regardless of training or age, can create and modify things without formal guidance.
Each year, there are three, large gatherings in the U.S. called Maker Faires. Over 150,000 people attend these events, which combine the fun parts of shop class with a dash of Burning Man. They're places to develop new skills, purchase parts and tools, and build with others. Participants also show off the fruits of their labor, which can range from electromechanical prosthetic limbs to fire-breathing robotic ponies.
Home-built mechanical mechanisms and electronics play a big role, which has prompted the National Science Foundation (NSF) to take a serious look at how Making can spark interest in STEM fields for kids
Dorothy Jones-Davis, a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow working at NSF, attended the most recent Maker Faire, on September 21-22, 2013, in New York. Its potential linkage to STEM fields was unmistakable, she said. "If you get a kid excited, then they get to know the skills that go into engineering," she explained.
The majority of fair attendees are K-12 students. Many booths teach basic engineering skills designed for various age groups, from simple circuits for the young to soldering techniques and amplifier design for older kids. They also provide a chance to play with advanced technology, such as 3-D printers, that are not commonly available at home.
Jones-Davis said she was impressed by a variety of specially designed, inexpensive electronics platforms with simple interfaces—such as the Arduino microcontroller and the Raspberry Pi microprocessor—that lower the barriers to building functional devices. These encourage young people to explore engineering creatively, without formal training.
Another advantage, Jones-Davis explained, is that engagement through the Maker Movement may make it possible for the NSF to reach underrepresented kids. Beyond the broad appeal of unfettered imagination, the strong community provides local role models for budding engineers that would not otherwise be available.
"The movement is really growing," Jones-Davis said. "It can expand access to STEM, especially for kids who don't have labs in their schools."
NSF has run several workshops on ways to provide more STEM knowledge to Makers, and is funding the exploration of STEM in similar informal settings. While the NSF has not directly funded any Maker organizations, the concept of "Making" is cited as a potential research area in their "Research in Engineering Education" grant solicitation.
At a time when school budgets for formal STEM education are under stress, communities such as the Maker Movement may offer one of the best pathways to science and engineering careers.