Jayshree Seth: 85% of people we surveyed said they knew “a little” or “nothing” about science. But 72% said they were curious to learn more. How can we help people get hands-on with science? We’re diving into Maker culture on this episode of Science Champions.
Welcome to Science Champions. I’m your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.
We’ve talked a lot on this podcast about how science is more than just running experiments in a lab. Science is a mindset. It’s a set of processes for examining the world around us. Anything scientists can do to help people think scientifically is immensely valuable.
My guest this week is an expert at using scientific principles in a practical way. Dr. Lucy Rogers is a maker, engineer, and an “inventor with a sense of fun.” Her unusual inventions help to spark curiosity about science in children and adults.
You’re the founder of the Makertorium and the Guild of Makers. So, let’s start with the basic question: What is a maker?
Lucy Rogers: To me, and it's a different definition for every maker that you speak with, to me it's someone who makes a physical object using imagination and skill. So whether that's making a knitting pattern, knitting something, whether it's wood turning something, or whether it's using electronics to make something that flashes, lights up, all of those to me are makers. Just using that creativity with the materials that you're good with to make something physical.
Jayshree: So would you say being a maker doesn’t necessarily have to involve technology?
Lucy: Definitely, yeah, for me it doesn't have to involve technology. I did a project recently where a comedy band wanted a concertina, a squeezebox, to break on a very long note. But they wanted to be able to play it. And so, I got hold of this concertina, started by putting solenoids in, and a battery, and it ended up it didn't actually hold while he was playing it. So I took all the solenoids out, and ended up with magnets, and kitchen cupboard clips. So, you know, the technology wasn't actually required, we just went for the old fashioned stuff.
Jayshree: That sounds like there’s plenty of scientific method at work there, even without the technology: It’s that trial-and-error process.
Lucy: Oh yeah. Yes. I think a lot of makers really enjoy the try, fail, try again. Okay, maybe not enjoy the failing bit at the time, but it's like, "Ooh, that's interesting. Oh, that doesn't work that way." I'll often be asked, "Can you make a something." And I'll say, "Yes, of course I can." I have absolutely no idea how I'm going to make it but I know that with trial and error it'll happen.
Jayshree: How did you get involved in maker culture?
Lucy: To me, I've always been a maker. My father was an apprentice carpenter, my mom was a florist, and so there was always something being made at home and, you know, all the school holidays I was making something whether I was embroidering something, or whether I was making a birdhouse with my dad. So making was always part of it. But then as you go to school, and you're good at passing exams, you get encouraged to do more exams, and less craft stuff, less making stuff.
And it wasn't until I finished with a whole load of exams that ended up in the Ph.D., that I thought, "Well actually, no, I still want to make. I still enjoy this. I still want to do things with my hands." I find it really relaxing. It sparks a different part of my imagination and makes me a lot more creative. So then I started getting more and more into it.
With the internet, I found other people were. Because finding someone in your hometown, your home village, that has the same interests as you is quite difficult. But actually on the internet, there's a lot of people out there who are like you. And then at conventions, maker fairs, maker clubs, where people like this get together, it's been brilliant for me.
Jayshree: That sounds wonderful. Do you think there’s an inherent value in this kind of hands-on experimentation? Something that can benefit children—or even adults?
Lucy: It asks…it makes people ask how things work. What happens if? To see the cause and effect of when I switch this button, magic doesn't actually happen, it does this, it does that, it does the other. And so it helps people fix things themselves, and actually gives them self-reliance on, "I don't have to rely on whoever they are to make a new product. I can actually make something that works for myself."
Jayshree: It seems like that could help kids get “behind the scenes” of their technology, actually see how things work…
Lucy: That's why the Raspberry Pi little computer was invented. It's a $30, $35 computer that's the size of a credit card but it has the computing power of something, say, a computer of 5 or 10 years ago. But you can use it as a normal computer so it has an operating system and you can play games on it. But you can also actually get to the hardware, you can plug things into it, you can control things from it. And no one's going to let their child hack about with a $1,000, $2,000 laptop. But a $30 computer, then, kids can play with and actually experiment with and try things.
So this has been one of the greater innovations recently is this Raspberry Pi, which lets us...well, lets children... But they've about 15 million of these items already. They were expecting to sell 2,000. They've sold 15 million and only 5 million have gone to children. Five million have gone to hobbyists who make things for fun, and 5 million are actually in industry. So this little computer that they thought was just useful for letting kids have a hack and a try, has proved really useful.
Jayshree: So how would you recommend someone get started on the path to being a maker?
Lucy: There's loads of places. If you have something local, there'll be something in a makers' space or maybe a library. Schools are having lots of maker areas, now. But there's also a lot of things on the internet from YouTube. There's code clubs, there's a whole plethora of things out there to take you from zero to maker, so knowing absolutely nothing to actually getting your hands onto something.
For me, the virtual community has been brilliant. I can put a post out, say on Twitter, that says, "I need to glue this bit of plastic to this bit of metal. What glue, what adhesive, do you recommend?" And 10 different people come back and say, "Oh, well I did that with this." Or, "Don't ever try this." And it's been brilliant. The community and the support, everyone's there to help each other. It's been brilliant.
Jayshree: It does seem like a very supportive, positive culture. That’s unusual for the internet.
Lucy: I've found it that way. It's been great for me. It's been great for those who want to learn and are willing to show that they're not perfect in everything. I think a lot of the maker culture is, "Yeah. Oh, yes. I blew up an LED." And, "Yeah. Don't put too much current down one." "Don't try and connect a motor straight to the pins of your GPIO because there'd be too much current coming through it and it'll...I mean, your Raspberry Pi burns up and dies." So there's a lot of, "Oh, don't do the mistakes I made." But also a lot of, "No, I'll help you with that. Here." The open source culture has been really good for that, of borrowing, of someone says, "Look. I made this thing and you can copy it. Here you go."
Jayshree: Wonderful. Now, let’s shift gears a bit and talk about “It’s Only Rocket Science,” a book that explains some pretty complex scientific principles in an accessible way. How did the book come about?
Lucy: I was doing some volunteer work for a rocket company that was one of the entrants in the original XPRIZE of getting a spacecraft into space twice within two weeks, I think it is. And I was working on this really specific part, and I realized I didn't actually know how the rest of it worked. So I knew an awful lot about the nozzle but I didn't know about how it would launch, or what happens when it gets up there, and the fairings, and all the sorts of how to get it through the atmosphere.
And I said, "Well, where's the book?" And I was either pointed in the direction of children's books which show you how to go to toilet in space or, "Here's this tome," on this one part, and it's just full of equations, and it'll take you a year to read it, but that's just 1 part and there must be 20 different parts that you need to read up on.
And I thought, "Well, no. I want just the general overview of how to do it." Reading equations doesn't come naturally to me. I have to sit down and actually look at the equation, work it out, part by part, and then generally I, at some point, get it. So having something just in plain English that was like, "No, I want the background of this." So I sort of know how it works and then later on, if I need to put the maths into it, I've got an idea of how that's gonna go. So that's basically... I wrote it for me.
Jayshree: That’s a remarkable feat, to say, “I need this book, so I’ll just write it!”
Lucy: Yes, ignorance is great. I thought it would take six months. It took three years.
Jayshree: How has the reception to the book been? Do people find it useful?
Lucy: Yes, there's been great reception. Eleven year olds are loving it but it's also used as a foundation book in first-year aeronautical courses where, "Here's the basics. Next year we'll hang the maths off it." NASA have used it for something. So it's been taken by a whole load of different areas. A lot of amateur astronomers are enjoying it. So it's... Yeah, I'm really pleased the reaction that it got.
Jayshree: We have wondered on the podcast how to get adults more interested in science. It seems like books like yours might be a good entry point…
Lucy: It is. I've found that my book appeals to a certain type of person. One who likes facts. And that doesn't seem to be the general population. So even if you haven't done a science...if you haven't got a science background, you may just like the facts given to you and so, "Okay this works this way, this way, this way." A lot of people like the human stories to actually make something stick.
I mean, even for me, I remember doing chemistry at secondary school, so I was 13, 14, and we were taught about a German chemist called Kekulé, who discovered the benzene ring. So this was a chemical structure and they hadn't worked out, up to that point, how this chemical structure would look if you drew it out. And he had a dream about all these atoms holding hands, and so that became a chain, and then this chain, or snake, ended up eating its own tail. And he woke up, wrote it down, and now we have this benzene ring where all these chemicals are attached in a ring structure.
And that story has stuck with me all this time, whereas the uses of benzene, I have absolutely no idea. So it's really interesting that stories and the people aspect, and linking in to everyday life, you know, everybody has a dream, everybody dreams something, and you often have really dreams that are just a bit weird. So actually linking that to, "Yeah, I can relate to that," is really useful, I think, for getting people who don't necessarily have a science background, more interested in the science.
Jayshree: In our State of Science Index this year, about 61% of people said technology was more important to their daily lives than science. How can we help people connect the dots between the science that happens in the lab and the technology that makes the world work?
Lucy: To me the scientists ask why, whereas the engineers who develop the tech generally ask how. So they say, "How can I make this? How can I apply it." And the scientists are a little bit removed, often, and saying, "Wow. Why does that react like this? What happens if I put this chemical with this?" Or, "How can I make this magnet do a certain thing?" So it's been really interesting for me to see that the science is often less applicable to people. Whereas you don't need to know in your tech that there's a gyroscope in your phone.
But you do want it to know which direction you're heading in when you're trying to use it for map reading purposes. And so, the actual science that went into the making a gyroscope in the first place, isn't as relevant to…you know, why that works isn't as relevant to people everyday when they just want it to work. So I think that's one of the areas that maybe we can look at.
But we've also got, and I know it's happened a lot in the U.K., our journalists will sometimes say, "Oh, I'm not clever enough to do science. I don't understand that." And these are the people that a lot of people will look up to. But if I turned round and said, "Well, I've never read Shakespeare." I'd really be looked down upon. And so that thing of science is only for the very, very clever, the boffins or those who've actually got no grip in the real world, the mad inventor type, it's a really bad and unuseful shorthand that has been developed. I believe it's mainly that the journalists of the past were probably more classics scholars and less science scholars and so for them it was the, "Well I want the gyro in my phone to work but I don't care how it works. That's out for someone who's much more clever than me."
When actually, in my everyday stuff that I make, I don't use anything post… The maths I learned at age 15 is about as much as I'm using. Now there are a lot of other engineers and scientists who use much more complex maths but I don't. I don't need it. I can use some trigonometry and that's really about it…some algebra, to work out what resistor I'm going to need in my circuit but I don't need hard, hard maths. And so to say that I'm not clever enough to do science, is just wrong.
Jayshree: Stepping back a bit: What is the coolest scientific development you’ve seen in your lifetime?
Lucy: For me, it's the ability to have all the world's knowledge in my pocket, instantly accessible. So it's the smart phone, plus the internet, plus the web, plus all the data that's there, and the immediate access to get to it. So it's not just really one invention or scientific development but it's that whole combination of because this happened, then this can happen, then this can happen, and this can happen, and now I've got a phone in my pocket that I can access the world's knowledge.
Jayshree: Absolutely. Lucy, thanks so much for your time today.
In our modern world, we tend to take science and technology for granted. It’s there; it works; so what?
But there’s inherent value in experimentation, in taking things apart and putting them back together. There’s value in forming hypotheses, testing them out, learning through productive failure.
Not only does this kind of thinking give you a greater understanding of how things work; it will also help you develop a creative, curious mindset. And that’s a valuable commodity in a laboratory, a cubicle, or even at home with your kids.
Thanks for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at 3m.com/scienceindex.
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