How Student Makers Solve Real-World Problems

by Vicky Thompson
Contributing Editor

Student makers tackle real-world challenges with Maker Share missions, creating innovative tech solutions driven by hands-on learning and a passion to make a difference.

Whenever teenager Hannah Edge suffered an asthma attack, it often resulted in a trip to the emergency room for a spirometry test. The bulky diagnostic machine, which tests lung function, always helped her recover. She wondered if she could build a small portable measuring device that she could use at home, something that could also help other asthma patients avoid regular trips to the hospital.

Edge embodies the creative and problem-solving spirit of the maker movement. At only age 15, she founded SpiroEdge, a start-up medical device company. Her portable lung function analyzer could potentially help patients who suffer from asthma, a respiratory condition that affects 25 million people in the U.S.

“A lot of makers begin by solving a problem that’s important to them,” said Dale Dougherty, founder and CEO of Maker Media. “As they get better, they’re able to widen that scope and look at other people and help them solve problems.”

Now the maker movement is reaching out to students with the launch of Maker Share, an online community for students, teachers and makers interested in projects that have social impact. Organized by Maker Media and Intel, community members can create and share portfolios of their projects, and find learning resources to go deeper in understanding how technology works.

The main attraction of Maker Share centers on missions, which help students focus their creative passion by making projects that solve real-world problems, from health issues to sustainable power solutions.

“Collaboratively, we can solve problems that may not be solved by business today or by other means, even researchers,” said Dougherty.

The introduction of Make: Magazine in 2005 helped to define and chronicle the rise of the maker movement. This tight-knit community of DIY tech innovators shares projects and resources on the magazine’s website and gathers at nearly 200 Maker Faires held in 38 countries worldwide each year.

Educational institutions and libraries joined the movement by creating makerspaces, filled with 3D printers, embeddable computers, building materials and tools to fuel the creativity of student tinkerers, said Dougherty.

All Hands On Tech

The amount of new technical information is doubling every two years, making hands-on tech education even more critical for students today, according to educators Karl Fisch and Scott McLeod, creators of the Shift Happens (Did You Know?) video series that explains how fast technology is changing the world — especially education.

“For students starting a four-year technical college degree, this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated by their third year of study,” said Fisch.

A research study conducted by the University of Oklahoma on makerspaces shows that during hands-on learning, students go through a “rinse and repeat” process, discovering how technology works through trial and error.

“When you allow students to do the types of projects that they actually care about, they are far more motivated to learn the skills in order to do it,” said Rajiv Mongia, director of Intel’s maker outreach programs.

Young makers
Dale Dougherty (second from left) and Rajiv Mongia (kneeling) help prepare young makers with the tech skills needed to become effective innovators.

Unlike traditional classroom learning, in which teachers and textbooks are the primary source of information, Mongia said makerspace environments inspire students to learn new things by seeking information on their own. The University of Oklahoma study found that self-directed learning helps students develop the 4Cs of innovation: critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.

Dougherty said the maker movement can eliminate boredom by more fully engaging students in hands-on projects that they are excited about.

“School is too boring for many kids, and if they’re bored they’re not learning,” he said. “Making is really about engaging kids — engaging them creatively, engaging them technically, engaging them with their body and mind. That’s a pretty big difference from the way school exists today.”

Solving Real-World Problems

Dougherty said Maker Share missions are structured to help students develop problem-solving skills to make a difference in the world.

One mission idea came from a mother who wrote to Dougherty asking if someone could build a device that would allow Malia, her 11-year-old daughter living with cerebral palsy, to communicate with others.

“That’s the perfect example of a mission — to improve the life of a single person,” Dougherty said. “I think others would want to help figure that out.”

Within hours of the launch of Maker Share, Mongia was contacted by an old high school friend who saw the Intel director’s profile on the site. The Malia project had special meaning for his friend, whose son has a similar challenge with people understanding his speech.

“Within 24 hours of the launch of this community, we already created one tangible connection between someone looking for a solution for his son and a mission that makers were trying to solve,” said Mongia.

Edge, the young maker who wondered if spirometry testing could go portable, had no experience with prototyping a medical device, but living with asthma fueled her passion to solve a problem.

Hannah Edge
Hannah Edge was only 13-years-old when she created a small portable device to measure lung capacity.

Spirometry, a common lung function test, measures how much and how quickly patients can move air out of the lungs. Edge’s prototype helps both patients affected by respiratory disorders and high-performance athletes to determine lung capacity and detect changes in lung function. Her portable SpiroEdge analyzer can send lung function data directly to a physician, which ultimately could reduce emergency room visits.

Two years ago, the then 13-year-old freshman at Dublin High School in Dublin, California spent months researching how to measure lung capacity and scale down the technology to a hand-held device.

Edge used computer-aided design (CAD) and 3D printing to create a portable, inhaler-sized device. Then she programmed an Android app to capture real-time data from air pressure sensors. Using a personal Bluetooth code to ensure safe connection, the device sends lung capacity results to a physician through secure Google cloud storage.

The SpiroEdge prototype won the grand prize at the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair, qualifying Edge to compete at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

“I think the most rewarding part of being an innovator is receiving positive feedback about my work and being able to improve people’s lives, and potentially make a positive impact in medicine or public health,” said Edge.

Now age 15, Edge runs her own medical device startup company with the help of cofounder and CTO Rami Abousleiman, an electrical and computer software engineer. The company is still in the development phase, working on a second prototype of SpiroEdge with more features.

“Working with SpiroEdge has really helped me grow and develop critical skills such as effective time management, navigating through issues, creating an action plan and applying my resources,” said Edge.

SpiroEdge device
SpiroEdge, made by teenager Hannah Edge, makes it easy for asthma sufferers to test lung function.

Maker Share plans to showcase the work of student makers like Edge with the intention of inspiring others to share their ideas for technologies that can positively impact society.

“Maker Share allows anyone to build a portfolio of work that demonstrates their capabilities and we get to know them not through grades per se, but actual achievements and accomplishments,” said Dougherty.

Future of Tech Education

Intel’s Mongia believes that the skills students learn through maker projects will help them become successful innovators in the fourth industrial revolution.

“In the first three industrial revolutions, people were often challenged to get their hands on the technologies necessary to innovate. As a result, innovation was limited to those that had access to the financial or knowledge resources for them to pursue their dreams,” said Mongia.

Now is a critical time for youth to develop innovation skills, including physical computing, coding, design thinking, creativity and teamwork, Mongia said. Collaboration spaces like Maker Share and other hands-on tech youth programs like the Make Tomorrow program, which is part of the new Intel Innovation Generation initiative, help prepare future innovators.

Today’s maker movement provides easy access to the building blocks needed to innovate and create new tech solutions, helping students to solve real-world problems.

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