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News Release 16-075

Enabling the future of making

Five new interdisciplinary, early-concept grants investigate new approaches in learning and innovation

mobile maker center mockup

A mobile maker center will investigate the developmental origins of making in children’s play.

June 22, 2016

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

During the 2016 Week of Making, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded five, new, early-concept grants to enable the future of do-it-yourself technological innovation known as making, and to catalyze new approaches in STEM learning.

NSF’s strategic research investments have already enabled many of the innovations underlying 3-D printing, computer-aided design, geometric modeling and computer-integrated systems. NSF has funded the systematic discovery of new knowledge about learning through making in diverse formal and informal settings including fab lab classroomstelevision and interactive web media, undergraduate engineering, and at the first-ever World Maker Faire.

The five, new, early-concept awards, each for $300,000 over two years, are intended to take radically different approaches, apply new expertise, or engage novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives to the future of making.

The origins of making: A data science approach to investigating cognitive and affective basis of learning through constructing

Researchers at Rutgers University Newark will investigate the developmental origins of making in children’s play through the development of a Mobile Maker Center that can be brought to local science museums, parks, play centers, zoos or libraries to study children’s interactions with specially designed physical objects and computer-designed simulations.

The project combines the expertise of researchers in cognitive development, emotional development, and data science and advances the theoretical understanding of STEM learning in informal settings while creating a rich repository of shared data for the broader developmental science community.

“An idea at the heart of cognitive development is that children ‘construct’ knowledge by active exploration,” said Elizabeth Bonawitz, assistant faculty in the psychology department at Rutgers University Newark and a principal investigator on the new grant. “A core tenet of the maker movement is that experiences involving active exploration of ideas through concrete experiences of construction elicit enjoyment and foster lasting learning. We suggest not only that children’s play behavior is like making, but that making is possible because of childhood.”

Tracking youth interest and engagement in makerspace learning activities using wearable technology

This project seeks to explore, in a naturalistic way, what aspects of making are more or less engaging for youth with a variety of interests. By understanding the different forms of interest that develop from making, the researchers intend to better-position youth from a broad range of backgrounds and design maker programs that can sustain long-term youth engagement. The project enables students to create wearable technologies to gather and inspect data about familiar activities and experiences and consider them in new ways.

“Making offers a great deal of potential for empowering kids and enabling just-in-time learning in STEM,” said Victor Lee, associate professor of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences at Utah State University. “If we can make sure learning experiences that involve making are made truly accessible to youth of all backgrounds and that maker learning activities are thoughtfully designed and informed by good educational research, we will be really well-positioned as a nation to positively impact an entire generation of learners." 

Making opportunities for Baltimore inner city youth in a 3-D print shop

Many youth learn about making in after-school programs. Unfortunately, not all youth are able to participate in these programs due to financial pressures and may instead take jobs in non-technical fields, limiting their exposure and expertise in maker activities. 

Amy Hurst of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Shawn Grimes from the Digital Harbor Foundation are creating a living laboratory "print shop" in Baltimore to study the impact of maker employment on inner city youth. Research will focus on how students’ experiences in the print shop maintain their engagement with STEM. Hurst and Grimes hope the research will generate a new model to keep underserved youth on pathways toward STEM careers.

“Making reinforces creativity, problem solving and ownership of one's own learning,” Hurst said. “All of these skills are not only valuable in the existing job opportunities -- they provide the agility for employees to adapt and respond to new career paths that don't even exist currently.” added Grimes.

An ethnography of maker and hacker spaces achieving diverse participation

This project will examine how diverse maker spaces welcome groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM, and how these practices can inform the design and operation of campus and community maker or hacker spaces that presently struggle to achieve diversity. 

“We have observed that diverse maker spaces have been built from the ground up, with full participation of diverse groups in their conception and development and in their day-to-day operation and leadership,” said Donna Riley of Virginia Tech, who is a co-principal investigator on the award with Lisa McNair. “Our study will give a rich description of the practices and artifacts employed to establish and maintain environments that are diverse, inclusive, and liberatory.”

The researchers plan to work with leaders of diverse maker spaces to glean emergent best practices and propagate these in the design or transformation of existing and new maker spaces on campuses and in communities.

bioMAKERlab: A wetlab and starter activities for promoting synthetic biology in high school classes and workshops

In a bioMAKERlab at the University of Pennsylvania, researchers Yasmin Kafai and Orkan Telhan will encourage high school students to broaden their understanding of synthetic biology.

“With bioMAKERlab, high school students and teachers will be able to learn and discuss not only critical ideas about synthetic biology but also test what it means to design and build your own organisms using DNA,” Telhan said. “This will give students the critical and creative understanding of technology and the sciences needed for jobs in the future.”

The design of bioMAKERlab will generate an educational version of an existing professional-grade lab for synthetic biology to promote safe production, accessibility and affordability for high schools and community colleges interested in integrating such wetlab activities into their curriculum.

This project will first develop and implement bioMAKERlab, an innovative wetlab starter kit and activities that will enable high school students and teachers to engage in synthetic biology by building genetic circuits that enable microorganisms to change color, smell and shape. In synthetic biology, participants make their own DNA -- gene by gene -- and then grow their designs into real applications by inserting them into microorganisms to develop different traits and characteristics determined by the genes. The project will then involve students from a Philadelphia public high school and young people participating in weekend workshops at The Franklin Institute, a Philadelphia-based science museum.

These projects are a part of NSF's Maker Dear Colleague Letter portfolio (NSF 15-086), a collaborative investment of Directorates for Computer & Information Science & Engineering, Education and Human Resources, and Engineering.


Media Contacts
Sarah Bates, NSF, (703) 292-7738, email:
Aaron Dubrow, NSF, (703) 292-4489, email:
Robert J. Margetta, NSF, (703) 292-2663, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2022 budget of $8.8 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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