I first met Dr. Steve M. Potter at Maker Faire Atlanta, which was then hosted by Georgia Tech, where he was a professor of neuroengineering. He describes this field as the intersection of brain science and technology. His life experience combines the curiosity that led him to study how learning happens in the brain, the enthusiasm that connected his own making to a broader community, and his goal to become a better teacher for his students. In this episode of Make:Cast, we explore how Steve became a scientist, maker and teacher.
Steve’s experience at Maker Faire led him to take a maker sabbatical and explore makerspaces and Maker Faires. On that sabbatical, he visited Ireland and decided to move there.
He has written a book for educators, “How to Motivate Your Students to Love Learning“. At the core of the book is his advice to engage students in real-world problems, which help motivate them to learn. Steve will be one of the speakers at the Make: Education Forum, which will be held online on September 24-25.
Transcript: The Making of A Scientist/Maker/Teacher
Steve: One of the nice things about my father was that he never tired of all my questions and would give me miniature lectures on any topic that I cared to ask about.
Dale: I am fascinated by how people become makers as well as scientists and engineers. My guest on this episode became a scientist studying how brains work and using technology to understand how learning happens at the cellular level. Making was always a big part of how he learned, how he advanced his research and how he taught students as a professor.
Dale: I am talking to Steve Potter who is in Ireland. I wanted to start with understanding you a little bit more, cause you’ve had a really pretty fascinating life journey and you’ve made what might be to some unusual choices. From reading your book, I gather that some of your really formative experiences started at home with your mother who was an artist.
Steve: My mother and my father were both makers. Mom did mostly art in her making, and she actually worked at an art shop. And so she was constantly bringing home art supplies and craft supplies with some new project that we had never seen before, making candles in the sand or weaving or doing macrame. So I have three older sisters; they were very much into this too.
Dale: And your father?
Steve: My father was an engineer. He designed antennas for Jet Propulsion Laboratory. And so he was big on engineering and building things. He also liked to do woodworking. So I learned some woodworking skills from him. I was basically shadowing him with every project that he worked on and cleaning off car parts for him when he was repairing the cars and asking lots of questions. One of the nice things about my father was that he never tired of all my questions and would give me miniature lectures on any topic that I cared to ask about.
Dale: So you grew up with a foot in arts and a foot in sciences, and I see that in your writing — an appreciation of both sides, which I think is really important today. But often we just talk about one or the other.
Steve: Yeah, it means that most of the making that I do , even if it’s artistic is somewhat useful. I like functional art. That’s my favorite thing to make.
Dale: Talk a bit about you, so you had that kind of home environment in Pasadena, right?
Steve: Yeah. At Altadena, which is next door to Pasadena. And I also lived in Hawaii from age 10 to age 13, where my father grew up.
Dale: What was your school experience during these times?
Steve: They were just probably standard 1970s public school experiences that you would have in America. They were pretty bad. The book describes the few teachers that I had that were inspiring or that somehow shaped the way that I teach. Some of them unfortunately shaped the way I teach in saying that I will never be like that, that bad teachers that I had who who were just so focused on the books or the tests or whatever that they failed to to understand the importance of what they were teaching or failed to tie it into anything real or tangible.
Dale: That’s one of your themes that you talk about a lot. I forget when you made this connection in your own learning, but it was real-world problems that really got your attention and and you started to figure things out for yourself at that point.
Steve: It was probably in the ninth grade, age 13 or so, when I was in Mr. Barnes class taking urban studies class and he was really perhaps the only teacher at my high school in Pasadena that specifically assigned lots of real-world problems for us to do, for example, going to the supermarket and comparing the prices of various things in different sized markets, not just supermarkets, but small shops and understanding something about economics that way. Or visiting houses that were for sale and drawing floor plans of them to learn about how does the realty market go?
Dale: Interesting. So it got you outside the school, into the community, exploring questions that one might have, right?
Steve: That’s right.
Dale: But you ended up going into science.
Steve: I was pretty sure I was going to be a scientist from a very early age. It was probably when I was about five. I got a set of screwdrivers for my birthday and began to take all of my toys apart and I haven’t stopped doing that. And just love science and asking questions. And as a child, I was constantly doing my own little experiments in the backyard or wherever. I remember there was one time when my father found an ad in the paper for somebody who is trying to get rid of a lot of surplus test tubes. And we must’ve biked about 30 miles to go have a look at them and somebody had an entire garage with case after case of test tubes. And we bought about two cases and we had to call mom up to come and pick us up because we couldn’t carry them home on our bicycles. So I was set with a giant supply of test tubes to make concoctions in and to grow. We had a pool that would fallow in the wintertime and I collected mosquitoes from there and watched their life cycle as they developed from mosquito larvae. And we’re just always going into kitchen and collecting whatever we can in the way of chemistry and mixing it together to see what would happen.
Dale: It is born of a certain curiosity that, you were able to stoke the fire of through a lot of your own interests, but it sounds like your parents helped to cultivate that as well.
Steve: Yeah, they did. They mostly left us alone. Me and my five siblings were free range children, I would say, which is common in the seventies. It was not unusual for mom to say, it’s a beautiful day, go outside. She would set us in the backyard and lock the doors. So we couldn’t come back in. She had no idea what we were up to out there. I think that, yeah, they encouraged me. But mostly they didn’t discourage me. I think a lot of parents nowadays are so focused on making sure their children get into college or making sure that they get some award or that they are able to join some school that they want to join, that the kids don’t really have a chance to just experience life for themselves or make their own decisions. Their whole life is just being dictated by them by their parents.
Steve: Yeah. My life was quite unscripted and I think that developed a skill in me at an early age to be self motivated, to find my own enthusiasm and my own curiosity.
Those are three traits that over the years really identified as part of what I think is a maker. Apart from what they’re doing, it is that self-directed learning. I’m interested in things. I can figure it out. It doesn’t mean that they learn all on their own or independently. It just it’s my problem to solve. And I’m running with it and talking to other people is one of the ways to solve those problems. But second is curiosity. Just how does something work? Why does it work the way it does and keep working at that until you really understand it, not just a superficial understanding and then enthusiasm you mentioned, which is a love of life, really.
But it’s what it first attracted me to makers, which to see this in their eyes clearly that, they began talking about what they do. They lit up. They were just excited to talk about it.
I’m glad you played that out because the contrast that, that Maker Faire in Atlanta, which took place at Georgia Tech’s campus in 2012, that you were at where we first met was a real turning point in my life.
Because contrary to all of the scientific conferences I go to where, there are enthusiastic people, but half of the people there will get annoyed at you if you talk too much about your work and they want you to enjoy it and socialize. And if you’re in an interesting place, do some tourism but at the Maker Faire, I saw everybody’s so enthusiastic.
And I said, these are my people, there’s a lot of weird people. They’re very creative people there and there was no rules and there was no stigma against, no matter how weird or creative you are, you were welcome at the Maker Faire. And there’s nobody who would get upset by you being too enthusiastic about something.
Dale: How did you get to Georgia Tech? Tell us what what that path looked like.
Steve: So I got a PhD in neurobiology at UC Irvine. And I I spent, I then spent eight years as a postdoc at Caltech in Pasadena working for two different professors Scott Fraser and Jerry Pine.
And that was a fantastic time where I really got to do a lot of making. I was building two photon microscopes and multi electrode physiology systems to record brain cells growing in a dish. I had two mentors, Scott and Jerry, who were both very hands- on makers themselves, both from a physics background.
They saw me and knew that I like to make stuff and I said, wow, this is definitely the home for me. So there I was at Caltech pretty much given free reign to do as much making and build the equipment I needed to do my grandiose ideas about studying the brain.
I wanted to watch learning while it happens in some neural system. So I was building microscopes that could hold a dish of neurons. And the trick was how do you get a dish of neurons to learn something? And so we basically re-embody them. We gave them a body to behave with on the computer and then later on with actual robots so their brain would stay still on the microscope stage while their body could be over there behaving. And theoretically, we could observe this brain cells coming together and forming…
Dale: Electrodes are the connection?
Steve: They were grown on arrays of electrodes, so we could both stimulate and record from those electrodes. So in some sense, we could send data into the dish and we could also listen to what the cells were saying. And and we did it. We actually, 2008, we published our first paper where we successfully did train the network to learn something. I can’t say that our microscopy yielded much fruit in terms of actually seeing the learning happen.
I’m sure we did, but we didn’t know what to make of it. There was just so much information there. So a lot of it is going to be solved later on by people with data analysis tools that will allow us to delve into those kinds of huge data sets that you get from multi-electrode arrays and from microscopy that’s of living cells.
So I was at Cal Tech and I went to a conference that was about neural systems and neural interfacing. And there I met Steve DeWeerth who was also giving a talk as was I, and after my talk, he said, we would like to have you at Georgia Tech because we’re starting at a laboratory for neuro engineering.
And he gave me his card and told me to consider it. And I just put it away in my pile of cards. Like I always do. And he kept hounding me. And eventually I was invited out to give a talk in Atlanta and saw what a great place it was and the laboratory for neuro engineering is a very cooperative group of about seven or eight professors.
And eventually the offer was so good. I couldn’t refuse it. I just said that this is I have to go there. And even though I was quite happy at Caltech and probably would have stayed there forever. Atlanta provided me with lots of great opportunities, including the teaching stuff.
As a post-doc, you’re usually not required to teach. And Caltech is such a small school that you definitely don’t need to teach compared to Georgia Tech where 30,000 students need to be taught and you’d have to put everybody to work on that, but you can. So I really got into teaching when I went to Georgia Tech and became a real professor there.
Dale: Talk about neuroengineering, what you study in that, the neuro and the engineering part.
Steve: Yeah. So I like to say that it’s any thing where brain cells and technology come together. Which encompasses lots and lots of things. A lot of people call it neural engineering as two words, but this was the laboratory for neuro engineering.
And it was one of the first, perhaps it was the first neuroengineering laboratory in the world. I’m not sure, certainly one of the first. It was specifically set up by Steve DeWeerth and Bill Ditto with the idea in mind of having only people who were researching the interface between brains and technologies.
And, in my lab, in particular, we were looking at cells grown in vitro and meaning in culture dishes that were instrumented with electrodes, but there were other labs that were looking at, for example, Michelle LaPlaca’s group was and still is studying brain trauma and studies that all the way up from the cell culture models to small animals into people.
And she was at the time I was there, was developing VR goggles that football players could wear to see whether they had brain damage if they had a concussion or not. So that shows you that neuro engineering really can span many different levels and also bridge many different disciplines.
So it’s an inherently interdisciplinary type of research that brings with it some goods and some bads. For me, it was always difficult to keep up on all of the different fields that we were supposedly working on. Whether it was cellular neuroscience or electrophysiology or optical microscopy, or, there’s just a million different things we were trying to merge together there.
Dale: And so you were teaching students not just a subject, but lab work as well?
Steve: Yes. I had a basic neurobiology class that was mostly a lecture class. And if you read the book, you’ll see that it was a very unusual lecture class where I tried to make it very interactive, but I also had a lab class, which was the thing that I really enjoy teaching.
I especially love hands-on teaching. And in the lab class, I spent a lot of time in the lab there with the students who got to design their own. Experiments. And these were, it was a neuro engineering lab class, and the students were mostly juniors and seniors, I think in biomedical engineering, the department that I was in.
And by that time they had a good set of lab skills already built up and could hit the ground running. As soon as I showed them the tools, we spent the first bit of the course just learning what are the tools available in the lab and what can you make? And what science, they had to read a lot of science papers to figure out where the field was at and then decide how they could possibly advance the field a little bit themselves.
And the goal here was to work as teams to actually really advance the field of neuro engineering in some way, not just to do a toy problem. That the the usual approach to lab classes is here’s your experiment, follow the recipe. And if you get the right result, you get an A. In our case there, they were creating their own cookbook as they went along.
And most of the time they failed and that did not hurt their grade as long as they had some signs in their notebooks that showed they learned something from those failures.
Dale: Yeah, it goes back to the real world problems. These are the problems of that field that need to be worked on.
Steve: That’s right. And they got to decide which problems. Of course I, and the teaching assistants would help them decide and give them some idea of what was feasible in the amount of time we had. And, but we didn’t want to dampen their dreams down and limit them. So we gave them a lot of free reign to do what they wanted.
Dale: Good. So after how many years of teaching at Georgia Tech…
Steve: 13 years.
Dale: You decided to take a sabbatical or you normally are granted one, but you made it a maker sabbatical.
Steve: As I said, in 2012, that Maker Faire at Georgia Tech really opened my eyes to the maker movement. I knew it was there. Obviously I heard of it and I was interested. We actually did 3D printing in our lab with a big, expensive Stratasys machine and stuff like that, but it was all research- grade type making. It’s very different than the amateur type of making that you see in Maker Faires. And there was another makerspace called Freecide I think in Atlanta that that I had visited around that time.
And I just said, wow, there’s something happening here. This is really interesting. And it was around that time. I discovered Make magazine, subscribed to that. And thank you so much for getting the Maker Faires going and the magazine. I have to say I’m indebted to you in many ways. And all that stuff made me say, I need to take some time off and learn more about this maker movement and see how it relates to my research and my teaching.
And whether I can incorporate that. I found that I love being in the lab and making stuff, but the life of a professor does not allow much time for that. It’s our grad students and our postdocs that have to do most of that. We’re in the office writing grants, most of the time. Or else we’re going to conferences. Or just doing meetings. There’s so many meetings we have to go to.
I took the time off. I took it first. I just took a year off. It was beginning of 2014. And my department chair was I wouldn’t say he was happy about my sabbatical, but he let me do it. I paid for it myself, which kind of made it so he couldn’t refuse. He gave me his blessing and after a while, when he saw all the great ideas I was bringing back said this is actually a good thing for Steven and probably for other people too. It was clear at the end of 2014 that I hadn’t seen it all. We wanted to visit makerspaces across Seattle area. So we went there first. That’s where some of my family live. And then I went and spent the summer of 2015 in Ireland and went to every makerspace in Ireland. And did some events there, like the Dublin Makers and then came back and did the Bay Area. So we lived in the Bay Area for about eight months or so and visited all the makerspaces there.
So I got a very good idea of different kinds of makerspaces. And there’s such a variety and such a diversity of them and different people and different goals they have. And I obviously attended many different Maker Faires during that time. Really immersed myself in the culture and read every book I could find on the maker topic. And I’m including many of them from your publishing group.
I said, this is just much more fun than my professor job. So I decided to make it a full-time thing. And I still have a tenuous connection with Georgia Tech. I’m an adjunct professor there. But it’s mostly just so that I can take advantage of their expertise if I needed it or vice versa, they can con they can hire me as a consultant if they want.
Dale: Before we leave Georgia tech, the Invention Studio, which Dr. Craig Forest had put together was, and in my mind, one of the first college- level makerspaces. Again, makerspaces, which you could call shops, exist at the university level, but what was different about Invention Studio, it was intended, the equipment was there for student use.
Steve: It was all run by students.
Dale: There was a maker club that ran the thing. And I remember, I, I think I quoted my book, Craig said the most important piece of equipment we have is a sofa.
Steve: He might’ve got that from me too. He and I are good friends and I made sure that we had a sofa in our lab and there’s one in my office too. I feel like if you got to have a place to take a nap, then you can’t be very productive.
Dale: But also to socialize was his point, engineers to hang out a bit and engineering students and was an important part of that there, and to create a culture where people felt welcome and they could learn how to use the tools there.
I always remember one time I, when I visited probably during that Maker Faire, which I thought was wonderful, there was someone from janitorial services in there using using a water jet. And it was a side project of his had nothing to do at the university, but he was just thrilled to be able to access that equipment and make something.
And I thought that’s great. That’s really wonderful..
Steve: Yeah, that was, I think that was one of the best decisions they made, because it’s quite possible that somebody who you wouldn’t expect would have a certain skill and bring it into the maker, to the invention studio and teach some other people there that, and they, although it was run by the students who was not limited to being used by the students, professors were there to also with their own projects.
So yeah, it’s a great facility.
Dale: So you decide to leave Georgia Tech and what do you do next?
Steve: My wife is Irish, so we moved to Ireland and my, the part of my sabbatical that was in Ireland made me feel like, yeah, this is the place where I would like to live. That was when was that summer of 2016 that we moved.
Some people say wasn’t that a big cultural shock. It was more of a cultural shock going from Caltech to Atlanta. I would say, living in the south is very different, weather-wise, politics wise, everything wise. So if I could handle Atlanta and then we also, during my sabbatical, I spent enough time in a gloomy, rainy place in Seattle to prove that I could survive in Ireland with the weather there.
I don’t like it. I’m from California and Hawaii and I much prefer sunny weather, but however you look out and you see how green it is. It’s just absolutely stunning out there. It makes it all worthwhile. We first moved to Dundalk, which is on the east coast, the very top side of the country.
Just based on where are we could find a good house that had a big enough garage for a shop. That was my main criteria. My second criterion was we drew these bubbles on Google Maps around all of the Maplin shops. Maplin is an electronic store. And so I said it has to be within an hour’s drive of a Maplin, you know. There was only four of them in Ireland. So that kind of limited where the, where we could go and it turned out there was one right in Dundalk. So that was perfect. Unfortunately Maplin went belly up about a year and a half after we were there. So now I just have to get all my stuff online, unfortunately.
Dale: How are the makerspaces doing in Ireland and has it taken hold?
Steve: It definitely has taken hold. I think the obviously COVID-19 has really put a damper on things. But for example, my favorite one in Dublin is called Tog. They are now moving into their fourth place. They occasionally get kicked out by the landlords because they have a lease that’s up and there’s some commercial, some other more high paying renter who’s willing to take that space. So they keep having to move on and they’ve just found a new place. And I keep seeing videos posted about how, where they’re going to outfit their new makerspace and Tog is fantastic. I’ve taught workshops there. And they pretty much are set up with lots of good equipment and enthusiastic nerds like me who like to make stuff of all ages and all genders.
There are a lot of other little things that are not traditional makerspaces, probably from your point of view, but the Irish people have something called a Men’s Shed, which is for retired guys to go hang out, drink a lot of tea and talk with each other and make stuff. And it’s mostly woodworking, I would say, a lot of turning stuff on the lathe. They hammer things together. They make a lot of flower boxes for the towns. If you see a flower box around town, it’s almost certainly made by the Men’s Shed or whatever town it is. There’s also an Irish Country Women’s Association that’s been around for probably over a hundred years where they do a lot of traditional female crafts and stuff, sewing and crochet and knitting and things like that.
So those things have always been going strong.. The Irish people just loved, their very crafty kind of people that love to work with their hands. But this more modern idea of a fab lab or a makerspace I’d say has only really taken hold in the last five years. And hopefully it will bounce back from COVID-19.
I don’t think there’s really any problem with working with PPE all day long. I do that in the lab. So having to wear masks and stuff is just no big deal for me. And I don’t see any reason why people can’t get into the Makerspace and just do it.
Dale: One of the projects you shared with me recently — you built your own CNC machine and you made it harder on yourself to make it portable so that you could take it to some of these makerspaces and teach classes. Talk about that.
Steve: Yeah. I have already been using a portable one called HandiBot, which I’m sure you’ve seen at Maker Faires, made by ShopBot. It’s a nice machine. It’s a bit overpriced. It’s very well made. But it’s limited to a buildable, carvable area of about six inches by eight inches. And that puts a lot of limits on the kinds of projects that I could make. So I’ve been shopping around for something bigger. I looked and I shopped and shopped for something that was bigger, but still able to be carted in my car, which is not a big car. It’s a Kia soul, an EV. Eventually I came across this one called Mostly Printed CNC, MPCNC, which is fantastic because you can make it whatever size you want. It’s completely hackable and configurable. And in fact, their website has a configurator where you can just decide, I want to be this wide and this tall, and it will tell you exactly how much a stainless steel pipe you need to get to build the framework of it.
And it’s very cheap. That’s the other nice thing about it. So it’s hackable, it’s inexpensive and on the Internet nowadays, it’s amazing that you can learn how to do anything. So I said, okay what kind of a substrate will I make it on? Something that’s sturdy, but still I can lift into a car. And I came across torsion boxes and I learned all about how to make a torsion box.
I designed one as big as it can be and still fit in the car and still be moveable and liftable and the whole thing ended up weighing I think, less than 30 kilograms. So it’s definitely liftable, it’s not, I wouldn’t say it’s light, but it’s definitely liftable. And easily portable.
So I can go to various makerspaces across the island and teach workshops on CNC and it could be carving at some point. I might outfit it with a laser to do laser etching or maybe with who knows maybe even a plasma cutter.
Dale: That’s great. Let’s let’s tee up a second discussion that we’re going to come back to, but why did you write your book?
Steve: I feel like the whole time that I was teaching at Georgia Tech, I was going against the grain. I was doing a lot of things that other people weren’t doing and most people, they’re focused –people who are on the tenure track are focused on getting tenure. And the advice for people trying to get tenure is to really focus on research, getting grant money.
And you’re supposed to just do only as much teaching as you can get away with. They kind of discourage professors from getting too much into teaching, at least until you have tenure. And that really bothered me because I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Ever since I was a TA, even when I was an undergrad at UC San Diego, I was a teaching assistant for chemistry and I really have enjoyed it continuously throughout that.
And so I was trying to implement some of the ideas that I came up with in high school where I said, okay, I want to do more of these real world problems. And I want to do more hands-on things. And I want to do less rote learning and less memorization of factoids. The kinds of things that my colleagues didn’t seem to be doing.
So at some point after I left Georgia Tech, I said, I got several teaching awards, including the top award that Georgia Tech gives out. And the top one that the State of Georgia gives out to professors. And so I said, I must be doing something right. And it seems like at least in the higher education, a lot of professors who are teachers don’t know this stuff. They, they don’t even know that it’s possible to do these things. So that was my main motivation for writing the book. I just wanted to get the word out there and partway through writing the book, I realized this is not just for higher education, although that’s where most of my teaching experience is. Any type of teacher all the way from kindergarten on up, even including teaching of oldsters, like me, can be doing hands-on real world problems as their main source of teaching material.
And there’s no reason why you can’t adapt any curriculum to this sort of approach. So it’s to introduce people to that idea, if they haven’t been exposed to it before, and if they have, it is still be useful because of the specific ways that I decided to implement it. For example, having my students write articles for Wikipedia, even though these were biomedical engineering students, any topic of teaching could incorporate Wikipedia writing and editing as part of its curriculum, because there’s so many different subjects on Wikipedia. And writing really should be a skill that you can apply to any subject I would think.
Dale: I completely agree with you. The core of maker education is to kind of transform a fairly lazy approach to teaching, and a confined approach to teaching that we see at all levels of education into something that, that really engages young people and connects them in turn to the world around them.