Introducing the Make: Science Room

By Gareth Branwyn


The Make: Science Room is our DIY science destination. Here you’ll find how-tos on setting up a home lab, evaluating and buying equipment and supplies, and conducting all manner of fun and educational home science experiments. We also provide a forum, through Comments, for our readers to share their ideas and collaborate on their own experiments and discoveries. Robert Bruce Thompson is your host. He’s the author of the best-selling Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments (O’Reilly/Make: Books, 2008) and the (not-yet-published) Illustrated Guide to Forensics Investigations. We’ll be including modified content from these books as well as creating original content. As time goes on, we’ll expand the Science Room to include sections on astronomy, Earth sciences, biology, and other disciplines. We already have dozens of additional articles on deck and will be posting batches of them each week, so check back often (we’ll usually announce the new offerings on Make: Online).

The idea of doing a hands-on science education area on MAKE has been floating through our collective imaginations for awhile. It got a big boost when we published Bob’s Home Chemistry book and it was met with near-universal enthusiasm and praise. It seemed to really touch a nerve in those of us who grew up with the chemistry sets of the 60s and 70s. (BTW: Home Chemistry has 5/5 starts on Amazon and is still ranked #7,631 overall and #2 in Chemistry/Technical.) Everywhere we went to show off the book, people would offer up their misty-eyed memories of books like the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments and of their beloved Gilbert, Lionel-Porter, Skil Craft chemistry sets. Inevitably, the talk always ended on “they don’t make them like that anymore” and similar laments for generations of young people robed of the hands-on exploration of real science. When we published a piece by Keith Hammond on vintage chemistry sets in MAKE, Volume 16, the same thing happened – more rapturous remembrances of chem sets past and more decrying the lack of decent amateur science materials and tools for today’s budding citizen scientists.

In the midst of all this, an idea started to percolate around the office: how cool would it be if we created a microsite on Make: Online that would serve as a virtual classroom to teach our readers the fundamentals of science and offer lots of fun and challenging experiments and projects for them to try and discuss with each other? And what if we brought back the legitimate chemistry kits of yore by assembling a curated collection of serious but affordable science kits, laboratory equipment, chemicals, and supplies in the Maker Shed. So we did exactly that!


Bob Thompson in his home laboratory

We think the timing for this couldn’t be better. Just as the open source hardware movement took off a few years ago, building on the ideas and ethos of open source software (and a profusion of affordable microcontrollers), there seems to be a movement afoot (albeit a likely more modest one) of geeks and DIYers turning from hardware and software to wetware — biology/biohacking/”synthetic biology,” chemistry, general citizen science, and approaching it all with a similar open source/collaborative ethos. As a prime example, see the article in the September 3, 2009 Economist on “biohacking.” It covers groups and initiatives such as DIYbio, a Dorkbot-like international organization that wants to do for citizen science and biohacking what Dorkbot did for art/engineering, and MIT’s annual International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGem) competition. We also know of at least one hackerspace that’s already setting up a full-featured lab and wants to be the first hackerspace to explore “open source chemistry hacking.” We’re betting that the Make: Science Room, the Maker Shed science kits and tools, and exciting new projects like DIYbio, are going to inspire other groups and individuals to create labs and to collaborate and engage in citizen science.

Make: Science Room and the Maker Shed
Besides all the effort that’s gone into building the Science Room, another huge effort went into acquiring some 500 new science-related products for the Maker Shed. Bob Thompson, Marc de Vinck, Rob Bullington, Heather Harmon, Dan Woods, and everyone in the Shed have worked really hard to find high-quality science equipment, tools, materials, and supplies at the best possible prices. They’ve put together amazing bundles of lab equipment and chemical sets. The Shed also now carries everything from high-quality microscopes and all manner of fancy beakers and flasks to lab aprons and splash goggles.

The Basic Laboratory Equipment Kit, one of the new science kits available in the Maker Shed.

We’re all really excited about the product line we’ve put together and how it supports the material in the Make: Science Room. But we want to be perfectly clear: The purpose of the Science Room is not to sell you the beakers and test tubes you need to do the labs in the Science Room. If you already have the equipment, have other vendors you like, can find a better price, want to make your own chemicals instead of buying them, that’s perfectly fine — you can still come and slosh chemicals around in our virtual lab. You won’t hurt our feelings. Yes, Maker Media is a commercial concern and we certainly like it when you ring our cash register, but that’s not ultimately why we do what we do. We do this work because we love it and its the kind of content and products that we’d like to have access to. We take it as a good sign that a lot of folks around the office are now, for the first time since childhood, itching to start playing around with chemicals and all the nifty new labware.

If you have ideas for what we can do with the Science Room going forward and things you’d like to see us cover, please let us know in the comments.

September 8, 2009