DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. It used to be called ARPA, and it was ARPA who funded the creation of the internet. Think of DARPA as the high-risk R&D sector of the U. S. Department of Defense. Sometimes the things they fund sound crazy, and sometimes they even are, but I personally think that they fund the more ambitious science and engineering projects in this country and get great results. Google might be claiming credit for the autonomous car, but remember that the guy who is running that program cut his teeth in the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race.
I worked under some DARPA programs during grad school and have participated in their programs since being in the commercial sector. I was quite surprised, and in many ways delighted, when DARPA requested proposals for a program called MENTOR that is aimed at addressing the shortfall of well-trained scientists and engineers in the U.S. The goal is to excite and enable a new generation of hands-on makers who can collaborate and co-design more complex things than have ever been built before (at least that is my interpretation of their goals). I was even more surprised and delighted when the venerable Dale Dougherty — the Pied Piper of makers everywhere — and I successfully received an award to tackle this grand and noble goal through our companies O’Reilly Media and Otherlab.
We’ve been asked to achieve hands-on education in 1,000 high schools in the U.S., and even around the world, within 4 years, at an incredibly low cost. There are few educational programs that have ever gotten to that scale through voluntary participation, FIRST Robotics, a really great robot competition, being the exceptional exception. But can we do more than robots? Can we appeal to a broader audience? We believe we can (it’s why we applied), and we believe it’s about enabling the maker spirit in everyone, about better collaboration tools for makers, and about more self-directed learning.
I won’t go into great detail about our exact proposal, but we do know that we need help. We have a solid set of plans, but the thing about getting a mandate to improve hands-on education is that, inevitably, one very quickly wants to fix everything. I think both Dale and I are barely containing our desire to shake things up, and our plans are getting more ambitious by the day, not less. We know that we will need a lot of help. This column will be my last traditional column of the Making Trouble variety; starting in the next issue, it will be a how-to.
So with these last few column inches, I send a request to all of you to send us your ideas, your offers of help, your good and bad educational experiences. Although we can’t change our plan too much, I’d especially like to hear what you would do if you were tasked with reforming STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. Send your ideas to email@example.com.
First imagine you have infinite money to fix the problem (wouldn’t that be nice?). Then imagine you have a smaller budget than the average high school newspaper. Makers, let’s make education better, together.