‘Think Meets Make’: Yale engineer argues for diverse creativity at 2014 MakerCon


Last week, undergraduates Ben Fischer, Julien Soros, and Jordan Plotner gathered around a xylophone in Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID), ready to make music. But this performance was particularly noteworthy because Fischer, Soros, and Plotner, in addition to composing the music, also designed and built the xylophone they were playing: completing both tasks was their first assignment in the course “Musical Acoustics and Instrument Design.”

That interaction between art and science is at the heart of the CEID’s mission, said Eric Dufresne, CEID director and associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, physics, and cell biology. Dufresne featured the course in his lecture at the 2014 MakerCon, a conference held Sept. 17-18 at the New York Hall of Science that brought together leading “professional makers” — executives and leaders from organizations and educational institutions at the forefront of technology and initiatives that nurture a culture of entrepreneurship, innovation, and manufacturing.

“The assignment combines a technical and theoretical understanding of physics, hands-on problem solving and making, and the creativity of writing and performing a piece of music,” said Dufresne. “This is the sort of really exciting thing you can do when you put a maker space in an environment with people of all interests.”

Dufresne’s presentation highlighted many of the ways the CEID integrates the rigorously focused discipline of engineering into the liberal arts education at Yale. In addition to interdisciplinary courses like the instrument design course — which is co-taught by Larry Wilen, CEID design mentor and senior research scientist, and Konrad Kaczmarek, a composer and lecturer in the Department of Music — the CEID is also home to weekly workshops that appeal to the entire Yale community, with topics such as the physics of bubbles, combustion engine teardowns, making chocolate, and biohacking. Curious newcomers who attend these courses and events can get additional support through one-on-one training and advising offered by the CEID’s four dedicated professional staff.

“With 8,500 square feet of open-access studio space and cutting-edge technologies — a laser cutter, 3D printers, a machine shop — we’re able to help students of all kinds turn inspired ideas into real-world innovations,” said Dufresne. “But more than that, we’re creating an educational community that reverberates far beyond the walls of the School of Engineering, encompassing 1,400 current student, faculty, and staff members — the majority of which are not engineering majors.”

One example of that diverse educational community is 109 Design, an undergraduate student venture developing a compliance and feedback monitoring system to attach to braces for children with scoliosis; Ellen Su and Levi DeLuke, two of the project’s three founders and inventors, accompanied Dufresne to MakerCon as representatives of the CEID Summer Fellowship Program, an initiative that offers students funding, equipment, and mentorship to develop their own creative, team-based projects.

“109 Design exemplifies what engineering and liberal arts can do together,” Dufresne said. Consisting of an artist, a mechanical engineer, and a political scientist, the team “took a liberal arts approach to help people with scoliosis. They talked to kids and asked them how it felt. They talked to physicians; they talked to health insurance companies — and they found that what they really needed to do is make a compliance device to make sure that people are actually wearing their brace.”

But being at MakerCon was also an opportunity for the 109 Design team — which is currently waiting to begin clinical trials of its device — to bridge its work in the CEID to the resources of the outside world. “We get to connect with people who have more experience and can give us feedback on some of the many engineering decisions we’ve made,” said Su. “We're also looking for manufacturers right now to help scale up production for our device.”

Those connections, said Dufresne, whether between experts and novices or scientists and artists, are what the CEID is constantly working to establish and strengthen. “Thanks to the information technology revolution, computers can help tremendously during the analysis and design stages of a project; simultaneously, technology innovations have also made rapid prototype manufacturing significantly easier. These advancements have democratized the ability to make, and in response, science educators can now open up the vibrant space between thinking and making for students of all experience levels and intellectual backgrounds.

“The CEID is doing that,” he added, “putting Yale at the forefront of redefining how to educate the next generation of engineers.”

The first MakerCon was held last spring at the Oracle Conference Center in Redwood City, and was attended by over 500 representatives across the maker universe, including entrepreneurs, investors, community leaders, and government officials. MakerCon New York is the kickoff event for the NYC Maker Faire, with events expected to draw 100,000 visitors to the making community.