America has always been a nation of tinkerers, inventors, and entrepreneurs, as symbolized best by Ben Franklin and his amazing array of innovations, including bifocals, the Franklin Stove, the lightning rod, swim fins, a glass armonica, an odometer, and mapping the Gulf Stream. In true Franklinesque tradition, a growing number of Americans have recently gained access to technologies such as 3D printers, laser cutters, open-source, low-cost microcontrollers, easy-to-use design software, and desktop machine tools, democratizing the act of making and enabling citizens to build just about anything. In honor of this inventive tradition, the UMass Amherst College of Engineering would like to join in the national celebration of the so-called “Maker Movement” on June 18, when President Obama is hosting the first ever White House Maker Faire.

A recent White House communication invited institutions of many kinds to join in a national “Day of Making” to showcase the nation’s vibrant grassroots communities of inventors, tinkerers, and manufacturers that are making our future.

Our own celebration involves hundreds of maker projects designed and constructed in our sophisticated M5 Makerspace operated by the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, our Altra Industrial Motion Innovation Shop run by the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) Department, and our newly funded Town-Gown Makerspace, a collaborative effort between UMass Amherst, the Town of Amherst schools, and the local nonprofit Amherst Media.

Nowhere is grassroots invention more in vogue than at the UMass College of Engineering. Our  M5 Makerspace is a 5,000 square-foot incubator for innovation created in 2008. M5 integrates laboratories, large presentation spaces, small meeting rooms, a recording studio, a machine shop, a 3D printing zone, and a storehouse of free mechanical and electronic parts to support a broad range of individual and collaborative activities, formal and informal instruction, and mentoring.

One prime example of this passion for inventiveness happened last April, when our student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers used M5 to host HackUMass, a 24-hour hackathon in which almost 100 undergraduate students from across the Northeast created everything from automated parking meter payment systems to portable health monitoring systems inspired by Star Trek tricorders.

Another project currently under way at M5 is the electronic modernization of a baroquely decorated, antique, reed, pump organ now residing in M5 and waiting for a midlife makeover. Students are reinventing the organ so that it can be played in its original mechanical mode by pumping a bellows or played with an arduino single-board microcontroller asa synthesizer.

M5 is supported by enthusiastic alumni who are leaders in their field, such as Dr. Roberto Padovani, a National Academy of Engineering member and Executive Vice President at Qualcomm, who says, “We recognized early-on in 2009 that an academic makerspace such as UMass Amherst's M5 could have a significant impact on engineering education. Witnessing M5's activities since confirms the value that such makerspaces have in preparing students to be our nation's future innovators.”

Meanwhile, our Altra Industrial Motion Innovation Shop was recently transformed and updated thanks to a lead gift from Altra Industrial Motion Inc. and now contains sophisticated manufacturing equipment such as 3D printers, a water-jet cutter, and a computer-controlled four-axis mill. Our students use the Innovation Shop extensively for course-based and extracurricular projects, many of which provide services to members of the local community.

The story of Ryan Wade is a case in point. Ryan, a five-year-old from nearby Northampton, Massachusetts, is unable to perform many activities of daily life without assistance from caregivers, because he has a rare condition known as radiohumeral fusion that doesn’t allow him to flex his elbows or use his hands. A team of students from the UMass MIE department and College of Nursing worked with Ryan and his family to assess his needs and then designed and built a body-powered mechanical arm that allows him to perform independent tasks such as adjusting his glasses, wiping his mouth with a napkin, and feeding himself. The team of students used the resources of the Innovation Shop to model various versions of the design, take those models from cardboard to wood prototypes, and then fabricate a final product made out of lightweight plastic using cutting-edge 3D printing technology.

Another ongoing project in the Innovation Shop was the streamlined, incredibly gas-stingy vehicle built by our UMass Amherst Supermileage Vehicle Team, which placed fourth in the international Supermileage Vehicle Competition held on June 5 and 6 at Eaton’s Proving Grounds in Marshall, Michigan. This is the 35th year of the competition, which challenges teams to build a one-person, fuel-efficient vehicle based on a one-cylinder, four-cycle engine. The tear-shaped UMass Amherst vehicle achieved an eye-popping 1,142 miles per gallon.

“The goal of the new MIE Innovation Shop,” says MIE Professor Frank Sup, one of the masterminds behind the Innovation Shop redesign, “is to create a space where students can translate their classroom knowledge from theory to practice, giving them the experience of creating a design and learning what it takes to make it real. In a sense, the Innovation Shop completes the loop on their education by providing the students insight into the power of their engineering education.”

In addition to these two makerspaces based in the College of Engineering, UMass Amherst is collaborating with the nonprofit organization Amherst Media to create a new “Town-gown Makerspace” and host community programs which combine creativity and technology. The makerspace is a joint effort among the College of Engineering, College of Natural Sciences, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Town of Amherst school system and Amherst Media and is being launched through a $15,000 grant from a Public Service Endowment Grant.

Initially, the objective in this project will be to develop and implement a new environmental science afterschool program in Fall of 2014, targeting Amherst middle school youth (with particular emphasis on underprivileged kids), centered around the development of open source do-it-yourself electronics hardware for science. (June 2014)