The Maker Movement

By Chris Dawson

Cornell's maker culture is providing the space and tools to turn imagination into reality.

One way to know that something has grown beyond being a niche community and has entered fully into the cultural mainstream of American life is it will have its own reality television show. Using this metric, it is safe to say the Maker Movement has gone mainstream. You can now watch not just one, but two reality television shows featuring makers. Season one of America’s Greatest Makers ended recently and season two is already casting. The Science Channel is currently casting its second season of All-American Makers.

There is no set definition of the Maker Movement, but it is generally agreed that makers are people who like to tinker with existing devices and create new ones, often using electronics, robotics and 3-D printing. From 3-D printed prosthetics for injured dogs to internet-enabled home appliances controlled through laptops or smartphones, the Maker Movement is providing an outlet for all sorts of creativity. 

Need more evidence that the Maker Movement has hit the big time? The White House hosted a Maker Faire in 2014, declared a National Week of Making in 2015, and there is now a Senior Advisor for Making in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Closer to home, once you start looking for evidence of a maker culture here at Cornell and in the broader Ithaca community, you see it everywhere. From the Ithaca Generator Makerspace downtown to the Cornell Maker Club in Phillips Hall, people are exploring technology and learning how to take their ideas and turn them into actual physical creations. 

In the maker world there is a strong focus on learning and using practical foundational skills in the fields of electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, coding, and even metalworking and woodworking. There is also an ethos of sharing skills and innovations freely. It should come as no surprise that one of the key early steps in getting the maker movement some momentum was the introduction in 2006 of the Fab@Home project at Cornell Engineering. Hod Lipson, who was then a professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, along with one of his students, Evan Malone Ph.D. ‘08 MAE, developed a low-cost, open-source 3-D printer that let users print with many materials. All of the plans and software for the printer were available for free. Universities and other technology enthusiasts around the world quickly climbed on board. Fab@Home had an instant impact and was honored with a 2007 Breakthrough Award from Popular Mechanics.

In the same way that the personalization of computers gave individuals tools previously available only to large corporations or government entities, the proliferation of cheap 3-D printers and laser cutters is leading to a revolution in what people can make and where they can make it. Add to this the development of relatively cheap Arduino motherboards, Raspberry Pi mini-computers and inexpensive vinyl cutters, and people can now design and build things unthinkable even ten years ago.

In some ways, the Maker Movement was already in full swing at Cornell Engineering long before the movement had a name. There is a deep tradition of student project teams at Cornell doing whatever it takes to make their planes, subs, race cars and other bits of technology work. If there is no commercially available part, the members of a team will figure out how to make it using duct tape, braided steel wire and the machine shop. This do-it-yourself (DIY) spirit has always been a big part of the project team process at Cornell—and it is a defining characteristic of the Maker Movement as well.

A showcase for the Maker spirit at Cornell is the annual exposition called BOOM (Bits On Our Minds). BOOM began in the late 1990s as a place to exhibit student-made projects from the fields of robotics, games, autonomous vehicles and smartphone apps. Prizes are awarded to the most creative and innovative projects and audience interaction with the projects is highly encouraged. The fact that BOOM has been around since the late ’90s testifies to how far back the roots of the current Maker Movement at Cornell go.

For those Cornell students who are more interested in making than in competing, there is the Cornell Maker Club. It was started in 2014 by student Hanna Lin BS ‘13, M.Eng. ‘14 because Lin saw there was no university-recognized club whose goal was to give students a place to explore technology, learn new skills and build things. The club has recently been given a well-equipped room of its own in Phillips Hall. Former Club President Alex Jaus ’16 puts it this way: “Many of the project teams on campus are looking for people who are very experienced at a particular skill. We are different in that you can join without any experience and you can learn. Collaboration is a big component. We provide a space where people can find others with similar goals and interests and they can teach and learn from each other. We don’t hold anyone to a particular expectation—it’s up to the people working on a project to make it happen.”

As interest in making has increased, the number of places a Cornell community member can go to find a makerspace has increased dramatically. There are now 16 spaces around campus that are at least partially open to students, faculty and staff. The Risley Shops on north campus provides students with a photography dark room and a letterpress, along with equipment for art and jewelry making, pottery, sewing, stained glass, wood, audio and video production, and theater construction. The eXploration Station, located behind the Wilson Synchrotron Lab, includes an electronics bench (oscilloscopes, function generators, soldering station), Arduino and Raspberry Pi resources including dedicated laptops, a 3-D printer, basic hand tools and battery-powered power tools, and recycled materials for rapid-prototyping. In addition, Cornell University Library has been experimenting with mobile pop-up makerspaces on “Tinker Thursdays” and “Fabrication Fridays” that rotate through various library locations on campus.

The DIY approach is also making its way more frequently into classes at Cornell Engineering. New maker technologies, combined with ideas of the Design Thinking approach popularized by the design firm IDEO, have made some classes home to rapid prototyping and truly innovative product design. A few of the classes incorporating ideas from the Maker Movement are MAE 4341 (Innovative Product Design via Digital Manufacturing), ECE 5760 (Advanced Microcontrollers), and INFO 4320 (Introduction to Rapid Prototyping and Physical Computing). Students in these classes take an idea from their brains to the real world in the course of a semester. All four teams in this year’s Innovative Product Design class have earned provisional patents for their work. In many cases, the students have been inspired to continue to develop their projects long after the course has ended. 

Some ideas to come out of the Innovative Product Design class are a counter-top personal beverage-chilling device called the Polar Chiller, a fabric-covered hinged play mat for kids called the QuiltBuilt and an electronic kitchen tool designed to help parents teach their children how to cook.

In keeping with the Maker Movement’s emphasis on the free flow of ideas and information, the boundaries between the Cornell campus and the rest of the maker world are quite porous. In Ithaca, Cornell students take an advisory role with the Ithaca High School Code Red robotics team. Ithaca has a makerspace of its own in Press Bay Alley. It is called the Ithaca Generator and it is a vibrant space with many active members. As it grows, the opportunities for interaction with the Cornell maker community are increasing.

In the broader world, the Cornell Cup, previously sponsored by Intel, is one of the largest making efforts of Cornell Engineering. The Cornell Cup is a national embedded systems competition that attracts teams from colleges all over the country. These small teams identify a need and then use embedded computer and electronic systems to create a technological solution to the problem they have identified. These solutions just about always involve a lot of improvisation and DIY workarounds. Past participants in the cup have gone on to start companies to further develop their technologies. One team, Titan Arm from the University of Pennsylvania, won the first James Dyson Award for Engineering and Design for their battery-powered robotic arm exoskeleton.

David Schneider, director of M.Eng. studies in the Systems Engineering Department, has had his hand in many of the maker efforts at Cornell. He helped create the Cornell Cup challenge and his cavernous basement workshop space in Carpenter Hall looks a bit like a mad scientist’s laboratory. Schneider is also one of only four leaders in the Higher Education Maker Alliance working with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Making gives people the freedom to create,” says Schneider. “We aim to empower people further to make a difference with their creations.”

In just the past year, Schneider has helped develop the national Make: Pitch Your Prototype entrepreneurial competition, participated in the NYC WorldMaker Con, the NYC World Maker Faire, the National Maker Faire, has been a speaker at the Higher Education Maker’s Alliance Innovation Summit, and has been invited to the White House three times for maker-related events. Schneider has also created educational modules to help train new makers in skills that are valuable when working on a project. Many of these modules have been posted on the Cornell Cup website. 

This year also saw the first Make-a-thon at Cornell. The event was hosted by a student-run nonprofit group called Life Changing Labs. Sixteen teams participated, each with the given task of proposing “life-changing solutions using rapid prototyping techniques around the topic of smartliving.” Each team was given a supply of Arduino boards, sensors and materials to use in rapid prototyping—things like foam, chipboard and tape. After a set period of time for hacking and building, seven teams gave a six-minute pitch for their product. In the end, two high school teams took top honors, beating out collegiate teams. First place went to P!LLPAL, who created a bracelet that stores medication and vibrates to alert the wearer when it is time to take a pill.

Justin Selig ‘17 was actively involved in the planning of the student-run Make-a-thon. Selig, who is majoring in electrical and computer engineering, saw the success of the event as “evidence of the increasing interest from students in exercising their creativity to make.” Selig went on to explain, “I think my generation is beginning to shift out of the software bubble since coding has become a baseline skill for engineers today. Working with hardware, making tangible products and using your hands to build ‘smarter’ devices is becoming the new trend. I see the ability to apply a full-stack of skills—from software to hardware development—in making Internet-of-things devices as groundbreaking. That’s my favorite part about the Maker Movement. Knowing that I have access to a whole community of people who share my passion for technology and creativity is empowering.” 

Schneider is currently working with representatives of Intel and Major League Hacking to develop the Maker Pro Awards. One underlying goal of the effort is to improve the educational and project quality of Make-a-thons nationwide. “Once the Maker Pro Awards are in place,” says Schneider, “we hope to reach 40,000 college students across the United States and Canada as they participate in Make-a-thons.”

Recognizing that makers start young, Cornell Engineering has recently undertaken an effort to build an online makerspace for high school and middle school students from around the world. It is called CollabSpace ( and it is currently in beta testing. There are roughly 200 members who have a place to post projects, ask for technical help and even request the mentorship of a Cornell professor or alumni. The space can best be thought of as an online social networking tool where students interested in coding, robotics, autonomous vehicles, rocketry, 3-D printing, sustainability, circuit boards and other technological topics can meet and learn. The next version of CollabSpace is due to debut late this fall, in response to the feedback of current users.

Cornell Engineering is testing another effort to reach high school students this spring and summer. It is called the Annual Build Day. Current Cornell Engineering students volunteer to go back to their high schools and lead a class through a maker-themed lesson developed by Schneider in coordination with littleBits and in alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards. The inaugural visit happened at the beginning of June, with Alice Meng ’16, a computer science major, returning to her high school in Lewisburg, Pa., to lead a very successful lesson. “The students seemed really eager to make,” said Meng after the event. “It was inspiring to see how enthusiastic the students were about building things. They not only had a chance to try to improve the remote control cars they made, but also had the chance to build some other objects. My favorite was definitely the art spinner because it combines technology and art to create something really beautiful.”

The Maker Movement holds great promise. The democratization of technology and the increasing ability of individuals to create solutions to problems both big and small will fuel the movement for years to come. Cornell Engineering is a natural home for makers due to its depth and breadth of knowledge in a wide array of technological fields, its commitment to both diversity and collaboration, and its founder’s belief in the importance of applying knowledge to make life better. University founder Ezra Cornell might not have used the word, but he was an old school maker himself and it is easy to think that if he came back to Cornell, he would be at next year’s Make-a-thon with an entry of his own.