Make:cast – Experiential Learning at NJIT

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Make:cast – Experiential Learning at NJIT

Daniel Brateris is Director of Experiential Learning at New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, New Jersey. We talk about the practice of hands on learning and its value to students in engineering. He was responsible for building out the manufacturing and makerspace facilities at NJIT. Daniel also mentions the social value of these spaces that bring students together to collaborate and also form friendships. Plus, he is seeing that the kinds of things you learn to do in a makerspace can make students stand out in the job market.

Justin Suriano (Left) and Daniel during covid lockdowns, testing prototype face shield made in the NJIT makerspace.


Dale: I’d like to welcome Daniel Brateris. Daniel, thanks for joining me today. 

Daniel: Oh, you’re welcome. 

Dale: Tell us where you are and what you do.

Daniel: Sure. I’m at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and I am right now in one of our manufacturing engineering labs and here I’m the executive director for experiential learning, which basically means I’m an advocate and a director for things being done in the hands-on domain.

My job is to look over the curriculum, our facilities and make sure that as engineers, we don’t stay too much in the theory and simulation world, that we get into the physical world.

Dale: Give me a bit of your background. 

Daniel: So my background, I have a master’s degree in electrical engineering. And I’ve been teaching myself since high school. I was running study clubs and doing tutoring and things of that nature. And just always been interested in teaching and I took a job here as a lecturer and stars lined up at NJIT. I took a job as a lecturer. We got a new Dean and I was always a hands-on person.

We didn’t have that great of facilities for hands-on learning. I sat down with our new boss essentially, and we both understood the need for it here. And we set out on a plan to change that at NJIT. So it’s been about 10 years now and it’s a different place. We have lots of places like this facility, lots of shops now, lots of teams, lots of making on campus and it’s been it’s been a journey, but a good one so far. 

Dale: It’s been an interesting shift, I think, not just at your institution, but around the country that engineering for some number of years had shifted to being more about theory and textbook than about practice and hands-on experiences.

Daniel: Yeah I agree with that. At some point the curriculum started to go towards simulation. I think when engineering started, it had to be practice. When we talk about the science of engineering, the discipline, there was no advanced computer modeling a hundred years ago. Everyone was still trying to understand the basics.

 As computers got better, things shifted more towards the theoretical, because we can do a lot now without actually building something. But we can think of that as a pendulum, right? It started at the practical and it’s been swinging towards the simulation and we may have gone a little bit too far.

So now we’re trying to get that pendulum to balance in the middle where we’ve got a good amount of practice and a good amount of simulation. A lot of institutions are starting to do that. To be honest, in my opinion, it’s a challenge because engineers are always needed but there’s a lot of exciting careers that aren’t as expensive to educate you in. It’s expensive to build these kinds of labs. But it’s easy. For example, computer science, right? You can simulate everything. You can do everything with a laptop. So it’s a challenge, but a lot of institutions are rising to the cause and, are really putting good emphasis and effort in making sure that we have the facilities and the instructors and the teams to build, world- class engineers.

Dale: So it’s not just having the facility. You really need the people, the faculty and you need the students to really be able to learn in this environment. 

Daniel: I would say the people are almost more important. Because you can do a lot with a lightweight facility. But you can’t do it without the expertise, right?

You can’t do it without the students that are willing to learn it and the faculty and staff that have the expertise to teach it. In the engineering world, we have a balance of people. We have these PhD-level scientists and researchers who are studying the cutting edge of things but we also need the balance of practical engineers who are working in industry. Sometimes that’s filled by adjuncts. Sometimes it’s filled by people who have had a short career in engineering are now focusing on education. But we need a balance of those and it’s not always easy to maintain that balance.

Academia is an interesting place. We have great experts, but we also need people who are grounded in practice and balancing that is a challenge, but it’s one a lot of places are rising to, and that we’re constantly working to keep that balance.

Dale: The other thing that, I’ve heard is, what I might consider the 60s and 70s like a golden age of engineering in America. Those students showed up at college, having a degree of mastery of practical things. They grew up on farms. They had parents that worked in factories. They knew machines and they had done stuff along that way. So to some degree, college wedded their practical things to theory, and that was very powerful. But what I hear today is a lot of young people haven’t had that exposure. And so they arrive at college, even in engineering programs with almost a deficit of practical skills.

Daniel: I do think that is true. But I don’t think it’s all bad, right? You can look at a lot of high schools and middle schools now and some of the things they start to drop from the curriculum are the practical things; they drop shop class; they drop home economics; they drop cooking class; and even these things that are not engineering like learning to cook, for example. It’s a lot of work with your hands. It’s following recipes. It’s taking measurements. It’s like chemistry class light, right? But if you start to drop that stuff out of curriculum, this turning the words on the page into reality, students start to lose that connect.

Dale: That’s a great example because in your title is experiential learning. This is what excited me originally about Make is you could read a recipe, right? You can understand what the ingredients are. You could see, oh, you’re going to cook it in the oven and it’s going to go so long.

But you get a very different understanding if you actually use that recipe and cook that thing, right? And make it, right? Absolutely. And, you might have ideas about how to change it, to how to do things in a different way, but you don’t get that kind of knowledge from just reading the recipe.

Daniel: You only get that knowledge from doing it. Some of the high schools now are doing the best they’ve ever done. They have these STEM programs; they have these making programs. And so I would say the students that we’re getting, the top of them are the best they’ve ever been. They really, truly are. But a lot of students are starting to lose that practical hands-on experience that they would have 30 years ago, they would have been coming to college, to engineering school with. So in essence, our facilities like this and our programs have some of the most challenging job ever because we don’t want engineers that don’t have the grounding in reality, right? They’re missing something if they don’t understand how things go from sketch to reality. You don’t need to become an expert at everything but simple little things make much more conscious engineers and make much better design decisions. I don’t think we can get rid of this, the hands-on component. I think we need to emphasize it. 

Dale: The thing that is so exciting in a way about like digital fabrication is that you could take an idea and build a prototype really pretty quickly or rapidly as we might say. And improve on that just as well. Turn it around and add something to it that it didn’t have.

Sometimes in education, we’ve emphasized the design part a lot sometimes, and often it’s like an old view where you had to do a lot of design work because building the thing was really expensive and time consuming, and so you had to make sure the design was right.

In this digital fabrication model, you’re balancing the two,. You have to have the design work. But you can actually build it pretty quickly and cheaply, so you can get feedback on how good your design is and then iterate on your design. And that’s a really different model.

Daniel: Yeah. It’s a very different model. With the kind of tools that we have in spaces, like on our campus, you could come in the morning with a concept, spend an hour in CAD and then two hours later, you’re holding rev one of your idea. 

Dale: How satisfying is that?

Daniel: It’s amazing. One of the things that we focus here on is we have this beautiful facility and it’s truly a wonder to look at the facility, but to see what it can do. So we bring high schools and middle school students in all the time. One of the activities we do with them is this sort of that, that process I just talked about rapid from a concept to a part. And so we can take middle school students or freshmen in high school that sometimes from the inner city or from districts that don’t have a lot of these capabilities and we sit down with them. We do an hour of CAD with them. 

  • Here’s how to draw your name. 
  • Here’s how to draw a box. 
  • Here’s how to put some dimensions on it. 

And then we go to like our laser cutter or our water jet and we cut those parts. And in a three- hour experience, those students have done that.

This is the kind of eye-opening experience that these students have never had before. They’ve manufactured something. Yeah, they made something in three hours, right? And then they can take it home with them and the world is different when they leave after that three hours. It’s a whole new world for them.

Keeping that kind of emphasis on the feelings associated with building is incredible. Because a lot of students don’t get that feeling. You get to create and when you get to create, it really inspires yourself and inspires others. And it builds this, at least for me, it’s got this euphoric sense to it. When you see the thing that you designed and it comes to life, it’s a wonderful experience. 

Dale: Yeah, no, it really is. Education promises, at higher levels that you get to have more of those experiences, more of those feelings and you get better equipment to do it.

So tell us about some of the equipment. I could see some in your background here, compared to the average maker space, you have some really high grade equipment there. 

Daniel: Yeah. So we, we are really blessed. We worked very hard to design and plan this space, but we’re blessed to have the State of New Jersey made some investments in us and and our students have taken great advantage of it, but yeah, I’ll tell you about, I could tell you what we have behind us.

So right now we’re in the Weissenrieder manufacturing and engineering lab. So this lab was actually donated, but what we have behind us is a manufacturing cell. So we have a five-axis CNC machine behind us. And then here we’ve got a robot. This is a collaborative robot. And then over on the I think that’s your left hand side, we have a CMM. So this is a small little manufacturing cell. And so the raw material is loaded into the machine by the robot, the machine will take that part of that. 

Dale: So is that like an arm basically? 

Daniel: Yeah. Yep. It’s a robot arm. And it’s a collaborative one. So it has four sensors on it so you can walk around it while it’s moving and if it bumps something, it will stop versus kicking you out of the way. And so this is a little cell and this is a classroom in one of our manufacturing labs and we’re adjacent to our maker space right now, but so this is a quiet space to my right over here is a bunch of CAD stations and a classroom.

So this is a place where students can learn and approach the machine basically in the same environment. This is a really nice facility and in the maker space next to us, we have some great things. Some of the higher end things that we have is we have a metal 3d printer. It’s an EOS direct laser metal sintering. We’re actually using that machine right now for our Baja race team. So they’re metal 3d printing some of the parts on their car. As we speak, the whole team is here because they leave for competition in three days and the car is not quite ready yet. They’re in crunch time. 

NJIT SAE Baja Team, California in 2017 after winning 1st place in the endurance race.

 I’m their advisor, but it’s a collaborative effort around here though. We have about four staff members that work in the maker space and basically, they’re all here helping the team right now.

And we have other teams on campus and it’s the same thing. The maker space is the hub for all of our engineering activities. So whether it’s our bridge team or our concrete teams or our airplane teams or robotics teams, they all interact with the staff here and get guidance and support from them.

Dale: Let me ask you just on the car, tell me about that project as a team competition. 

Daniel: So we have many, I think we have about 10 teams that build things. And these are usually they’re sponsored by the professional societies in their disciplines.

So like the Baja team is sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers. We’ve got ones that are sponsored by aeronautical engineering. So the Baja is the one I’m the most familiar with. So basically they all get a common engine, so they all have to use the same power plant essentially.

And then there’s a set of rules for the physical size of the vehicle and the rest is basically up to them. So they have to build the vehicle from the ground up. They can use off the shelf parts, if they want. Our team builds most of it down to the frame; they notch and bend and weld the frame together.

They designed the gearbox. They’re building the gearbox as we speak. They made the gears; they made the uprights; they made parts of the transmission; they design all of that. So the concept is we’re trying to train the next generation of engineers. We want them to make good choices, so don’t build a part if a suitable part exists.

But the society that has planned this competition has done a pretty good job of giving the team just enough power in the engine that if they use the off-the-shelf components that are designed for much more powerful engines, their car won’t be very fast. So it basically forces them to design lightweight, high efficiency components.

They have 15 horsepower. It’s not a whole lot, but enough to go real fast if the car is light and efficient. But if you take an off the shelf car like it, that has a hundred horsepower. You can’t put the same parts on a 15 horsepower and expect it to move.

Dale: And so in three days time, they’re going to be going to Baja? 

Daniel: Yeah. So they’re going to be traveling to Oregon. Yeah, that’s far for us across the country. There’s this particular competition. There’s three of them every year in different places around the country.

And yeah, so they’ll be heading out. 

Dale: And how long, it has to go over all kinds of terrain, but like, how long is the course or how many hours? 

Daniel: They divide it into a couple different competitions. One of them is the cost and design of it. One is like the manufacturability of it. Another is the design. So they evaluate the efficiency and the design and the performance of it. And then the rest is physical competition. Single events like sled pull, max acceleration, top speed, hill climb, agility, things like that. So a combination of driver skill and ability of the vehicle to meet the challenge.

And then they have an all out race; four hours, usually a hundred plus teams on a motocross track going full at it for four hours. It’s really grueling on the driver and on the car. There’s jumps. There’s all sorts of things designed to test the vehicle’s ruggedness and design and the driver.

Dale: And let me guess that they have to be prepared to fix things that break. 

Daniel: Yeah. So one of the things NJIT did that’s really nice is they allowed our engineering teams like specifically this one to use our athletics logo. And I think it’s cause they saw some videos of the driver and the pit crew. It is a real team effort. It’s like watching a NASCAR race. There is a coordination between the driver teams, the repairs, the maintenance. It is a full team effort, so it’s it’s a lot of fun. And we take a lot of pride in it here.

Our teams are pretty good. We’re consistently in the top 20. We’ve won it a couple of times. But we put a lot of resources into supporting these teams because we want the students to learn. We want them to enjoy it. I’ll tell you, it’s a great job interview. The biggest thing I think with these teams is it is something they can point to that they take ownership of. So the students that are down there now, a few of them when they graduate, when you go to a job interview, what have you done?

“Oh I managed the design of the gearbox for this vehicle. And then I oversaw the production of it.” And then for many of them, “I manufactured it myself with a team of two or three people. We could put it together. We tested it.” if you can tell that story and it’s true, which it is for our students and someone inspects you, grills you on questions about it, and you have answers, man, you are so far ahead of your competition that sat in the classroom, 

Dale: Tell me, can they find jobs out there that are like this, like building a car? In other words yeah, you wouldn’t want to take someone that came out of this program and did all that stuff and then sit them in a computer and say, here’s your Excel spreadsheet, and here’s your CAD design.

And I hear this that there are companies that say, we want the people that already know how to do stuff, because we have a lot of stuff that we need them to do. But what’s your side of that? How do you see the world of work and the opportunities for students out there?

Daniel: Yeah. I think it really depends on the industry and the kind of companies that you go to. We’re in New Jersey and New Jersey may not be the place you think of when you think manufacturing. But we do have a fairly vibrant manufacturing scene in New Jersey. Certainly not vehicle manufacturing though, that’s mostly, out West, Detroit, that kind of area.

But if you go to small to medium sized manufacturing companies in New Jersey, you will certainly find these kind of jobs. The companies aren’t so big that you have one engineer that sits behind a computer and that’s all he does. They’re small enough that the engineers are multifaceted and can get involved in different aspects of the production process.

And these specific students are hired by places like GM and Chrysler and, other companies. We have several students at Tesla and they get to work on some cutting edge stuff. You certainly have competition, and so I think setting yourself apart from the rest of the competition is a great idea. And this is one way to do it. 

But we do unfortunately have graduates that do CAD all day long and some people like that. I like the blended approach where I’m not doing the same exact thing all day, every day. And my personal opinion is I think you find that more at mid sized companies than you do it at the gigantic type places. That would be my opinion. If that’s the kind of job you’re looking for, I wouldn’t start with the 20, 000 person companies. That’s where you’re looking for a job. 

Dale: Sometimes at the large companies, you’re in a very specialized role and in a smaller company or medium sized company, you have a lot of different roles and you switch between them. And depending on how you are, that can be satisfying to learn different things, different responsibilities. 

Daniel: Yeah. Yeah. It can also be exhausting, but… 

Dale: They expect you to do everything.

Daniel: They expect you to do a little of everything. I like that, the constant challenge is something I like. A lot of engineers are like that. 

Dale: Something you mentioned in the beginning is, this has been part of a process where the top level administration has bought into it. You’ve gotten the state to buy into that. You’ve been there since the beginning. So how did some of that happen? 

If I go back 10, 12 years, a lot of makerspaces, even in university, started because a couple of students wanted to see it happen and didn’t have a lot of support or a professor wanted it, didn’t have a budget, but they squirreled away some resources and made it happen.

But this is a full blown model that’s well supported and understood to be part of the main focus of the school. 

Daniel: Yeah I will say it was not a straightforward process. It required just diligence on our part, though, we, we tried starting small. We didn’t get pushback, but we got concern, and most of the time we got the concern of if we had asked a department to do this, they didn’t know how they would do it safely. Or if we ask the club to handle it they didn’t think they’d have the resources. Most people were excited by it but they were cautious of, okay, will we be well supported enough to do it. Our kind of response to that was we tried that effort for a while and it didn’t quite work for us.

So I’m sure it’s going to be different if at every institution, but our institution, it seemed like the key was just repetitively showing the value of it, showing that it could be done safely and showing that it was something our students were interested in. And when we just kept chugging along that path. Eventually we had convinced enough people that it was meaningful. It was worth the money and the effort and that we had enough expertise to make it happen. It was not an easy process, and I don’t think that’s any discredit to NJIT. I think it’s actually a credit that they were just making sure we were putting our resources in the right spot.

If you’re up at that high level, you can’t be an expert in anything, excuse me, in everything. So you have to make sure that the people who are asking you for a lot of money are really up to the challenge. And I think they did a good job of that. And to their credit now, we have one of the best makerspaces in the country and it’s vibrant and there’s a lot of students learning from it and choosing our institution because of it. 

Dale: It’s fulfilled the vision that you had for it.

Daniel: Yeah. In fact I would say that it’s a victim of its own success here. We have good staffing and good resources, but we we have so much demand from our students that we just keep wanting more and more. 

Dale: That’s the most satisfying thing to me to hear because you could do all this and not find the students value it. Kids see an opportunity here for themselves and it makes it real. It makes it immediate in a sense that they get to see the results of learning how to do something not just deferred down the road.

Daniel: Depending on how they’re set up, these making environments are very good social catalysts too. We have one part of our facility that’s pretty industrial, and we have another part that’s pretty creative and not as industrial, and you find that there’s a big social component to it, too. You find that students that have some of these skills already automatically take on a mentorship role. We have some students that work in the space that are paid workers in the space, but students that aren’t paid workers end up hanging out and helping other students in it.

 It’s more than just the skill that they’re acquiring here. I think it’s another social outlet. It’s another place for friendships and things to build. I think the amount of good that it does is quite beyond just teaching students how to fabricate something. I think there’s tremendous benefits and self esteem and self efficacy.

That’s one of the things that we’re starting to study now in the space from an academic viewpoint. You can build a lot of maybe self esteem may be the right word. You can build a lot of that by trying your hand at something and becoming proficient at it. And there’s benefits in that extend beyond just your academic ability.

And I think it’s really worth it as well. 

Dale: That’s how we get into talking about things like mindset and you begin to see that you can do lots of things, even if you’ve not done that thing yet. The learning’s transferable, the process that you’re doing. I know how to go about learning how to do that.

Daniel: Learning how to learn how to do something is a skill in itself. My personal opinion is that this increased reliance on standardized testing and things like that has, in some cases, has chipped away at that a little bit. The process of making, even if you’re not a scientist or an engineer, the process of making is essentially the scientific process. I think this is going to work.

I develop a plan, then I make it, and then I see if it works. Then as long as I wrote down what I did and I know, I have some testable conclusion, then I get to the next part, and that makes you good at that process, right? So going through that process is a learning experience in itself and you know that’s a very useful skill for far beyond engineering, right? That’s a skill for your life, right? How to take some unknown or new problem and develop a path towards a solution. 

Dale: Do you encourage students to, what I’d call portfolio, to document their project and share it somehow? Not just do the thing, but, craft a story about how they did it and what they did and why? 

Daniel: We do. To be honest though, it is an area that we could use more improvement in our facilities. But we do encourage that. We have a little showcase where we put cool projects out and within our staff and stuff here. We have a showcase your best work channel in our communication tools here.

Dale: Okay, good. You can send me some links or I’d love to see some specific student projects. 

Daniel: Sure. Yeah, absolutely. 

Dale: It’s always fascinating to me what students do, and sometimes they don’t think that it would be interesting to others, but I think that my experience at Maker Faire and other things is people they love to see what you did. 

Daniel: We do showcase some of our coursework. So we have quite a few courses that, terminate in semester long projects or things like that. And so we showcase that. And we do encourage anyone in here that’s just here, for whatever reason, we allow our students to use these spaces for a pretty broad range of things.

Like they, they don’t just have to work on coursework here. They can work on personal projects. They can work on entrepreneurial ideas. They can work on these team projects but about our only real restriction is they can’t sell what they make in here. So they can’t use it as like a micro factory.

But they could develop things they’re going to sell, want to start a business building something, they can do the prototypes here and get themselves off the ground. So that’s a big part of it. 

Dale: Give me some insight into what do you do outside of school? 

Daniel: Let’s see. What do I do? So I live down by the shore. I’m a sailor. My brother and I go sailing all the time. And I surf and I do a lot of water sports. Let’s see I operate a charity. It’s called Raising For. So we’re a nonprofit and we essentially run events to raise money for other charities. There’s some charities out there that are really great causes, but they don’t have any expertise, or they have difficulty fundraising. We run events. And so one of the ones we’re famous for is called the Christmas light show. We’ve been doing that for about 15 or 16 years. So we had tens of thousands of people per year come and see this the show. And now we’re starting to do some 4th of July shows.

They’re usually concerts or lighting events. My friends and my brother and family and I spend a good amount of time putting those events together. And they usually raise money for another cause. This summer, we’re supporting Rebuilding Warriors, which is like an organization that trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD.

And then we raise money for Rally Cap sports, which is a charity that helps children with any kind of disability participate in sporting events and exercise events. I keep myself very busy, a good life in service of others is a great way to live.

So if I’m not relaxing, I’m either spending time with my friends and family, or we’re trying to find a way to do something good for for somebody else. 

That’s good. 

Dale: Thank you, Daniel. I really appreciate learning more about what you’re doing and thanks for talking to me today.

Daniel: Absolutely. Thank you very much for having me. 

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DALE DOUGHERTY is the leading advocate of the Maker Movement. He founded Make: Magazine 2005, which first used the term “makers” to describe people who enjoyed “hands-on” work and play. He started Maker Faire in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2006, and this event has spread to nearly 200 locations in 40 countries, with over 1.5M attendees annually. He is President of Make:Community, which produces Make: and Maker Faire.

In 2011 Dougherty was honored at the White House as a “Champion of Change” through an initiative that honors Americans who are “doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.” At the 2014 White House Maker Faire he was introduced by President Obama as an American innovator making significant contributions to the fields of education and business. He believes that the Maker Movement has the potential to transform the educational experience of students and introduce them to the practice of innovation through play and tinkering.

Dougherty is the author of “Free to Make: How the Maker Movement Is Changing our Jobs, Schools and Minds” with Adriane Conrad. He is co-author of "Maker City: A Practical Guide for Reinventing American Cities" with Peter Hirshberg and Marcia Kadanoff.

View more articles by Dale Dougherty


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