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Shining the Spotlight on Innovation at World Maker Faire

By Helen Horwitz

“Maker Faire is the 21st century equivalent of going to a toy store,” says Charles Rubenstein.

“At a Maker Faire, other people have made their own toys, and you can see how something works and then make it yourself,” he explains. “Seeing how something works, and then trying to make it even better, is part of the IEEE message about innovation.”

This IEEE Life Senior Member, longtime IEEE and IEEE-USA leader, and professor of engineering and information science at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, N.Y., should know. Since 2012, he has served as curator and coordinator of the IEEE booth at the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science in New York City. Subtitled “The Greatest Show and Tell on Earth,” this family-friendly event is a celebration of DIY projects made by entrants who range from tinkerers to graduate engineers. This year’s World Maker Faire, held the weekend of 23-24 September, drew more than 90,000 people from 44 states and 45 other countries. There were more than 750 exhibits.

“IEEE is a creator of technologies, many of which are used by non-technical professionals such as designers and sculptors,” Rubenstein says. “As the pre-eminent electro-technology society, IEEE needs to be visible to everyone using technology.”

The Maker Movement is a 21st century phenomenon. It enables a new generation of tinkerers around the world—some of them not yet in high school—to design, build and demonstrate their projects, while also learning from each other. Thanks to the spread of low-cost, readily available electrical components, Makers can easily participate in this grassroots movement. They work in so-called “makerspaces” typically found in libraries, schools and community centers, creating prototypes and finished projects with 3D printers, laser cutters, soldering irons and other tools—and display their handiworks at Maker events.

In 2016, more than 1.4 million people visited Maker Faires around the world—double the number in 2014, according to Maker Media, which has been sponsoring the events since 2005. Although more than 190 events were held last year in 38 countries, only the Maker Faire near San Francisco, which drew 100,000 visitors this year, is larger than the World Maker Faire in New York.

“At the Maker Faire San Francisco Bay Area, and the World Maker Faire, in New York City, both the local section and the region create a real IEEE presence,” says Tom Coughlin, 2018 IEEE-USA President-elect and 2016-17 Chair of the IEEE Public Visibility Committee. He adds, “Participating in these events raises the visibility of IEEE, and influences the next generation to contribute to a better life by becoming engineers and technologists—and to join the IEEE, so they can pursue their dreams working with likeminded people.”

The opportunity to showcase IEEE and IEEE-USA to a broad, technologically aware audience is especially important at Maker Faires. They attract not only crafters, DIYers and tech enthusiasts, but also educators, student science clubs, and major companies like Intel, Microsoft and Google. Barnes & Noble, Dremel, Arduino and Prusa sponsored the recent Maker Faire in New York.

At the 2017 World Maker Faire, IEEE volunteers from IEEE-USA and Region 1, along with staff members from IEEE-USA, IEEE Educational Activities and Member and Geographic Activities, were on hand to provide information, as well as help participants with hands-on activities geared to a range of ages.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology New England Network sponsored an LED torch (flashlight) workshop at this year’s booth. IET provided more than 1,000 LED flashlight kits for younger Maker attendees to build and customize, with the help of volunteers.

Older children enjoyed a demonstration of a robot solving a Rubik’s cube puzzle. IEEE Senior Member Gin Soon Wan of IEEE’s Boston Section; and his son, Anthony, now 10, developed the project two years ago. This year was the second that the IEEE booth exhibited the Wans’ creation, which they made with a Lego Mindstorms kit. Wan, who hosts free robotics workshops for kids, at his home in Windham, N.H., believes the way to get youngsters excited about engineering is by encouraging them to build their own projects.

UBTECH, an AI and humanoid robotics company, developed two robots, attracting Faire-goers of all ages. Both YanShee, based on Raspberry Pi Model 3B; and uKit Explore, compatible with Arduino IDE, have open-sourced electronics platforms. And both are designed as integrated educational solutions. Nick Cui, of UBTECH in Shenzhen, China, conducted demonstrations showing how the programmable robots can help and entertain their users. Howard Michel, 2015 IEEE President, is Chief Technology Officer of UBTECH Education.

At a “Learn to Solder” workshop, IEEE members acted as soldering coaches—to show Faire-goers of all ages how to solder a blinking LED badge, using a soldering iron—and how to avoid burned fingers.

Serving since 2012 as IEEE-USA Conference Committee Chair, Rubenstein readily admits he enjoys putting together events like IEEE’s booth at the World Maker Faire. While Director of IEEE Region 1, he was introduced to the Maker world while attending the 2011 IEEE Sections Congress—where he attended a Maker experience for children using LEDs and batteries. A month later, and back home in New York, he attended his first World Maker Faire.

“Engineers without Borders had a booth, and I chatted with several IEEE colleagues, but there was no IEEE booth,” he recalls. “As one of my Director’s goals for Region 1, I immediately started developing a plan to make IEEE and IEEE-USA much more visible at this important event.”

In addition to demonstrating and discussing the technologies on display, IEEE student- and higher-grade volunteers and staff members, speak with the many visitors—of all ages—who stop by the booth. They also hand out IEEE Society magazines and literature, copies of the printed versions of the IEEE-USA Women in Engineering e-book series, and a variety of IEEE-branded merchandise. This year, they also provided copies of the September 2017 issue of The Institute, with the article “IEEE Joins the Maker Movement.”

What’s next for IEEE’s presence at the 2018 World Maker Faire? Rubenstein says that he’d like to include a drone exhibit next year, as well as highlight IEEE’s significant role in enhancing cybersecurity. “We need to help ensure that potential, as well as current, IEEE members are aware of our important achievements in this area to help keep IEEE in the forefront of people’s thinking,” he states.

Rubenstein welcomes any student- or higher-grade member, who would like to volunteer to help staff the booth at future World Maker Faires, to contact him at for information.

As always, the dates for the 2018 World Maker Faire won’t be announced until mid-summer next year. Parking is at Citi Field, adjacent to the New York Hall of Science in Astoria, Queens—so Faire sponsors schedule the date according to whether the New York Mets baseball team will likely be playing in their home field during the playoffs.

Helen Horwitz is an award-winning freelance writer who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.


Helen Horwitz

Helen Horwitz was an award-winning freelance writer in Albuquerque, N.M. She was with IEEE from 1991 through 2011, the first nine as Staff Director, IEEE Corporate Communications.

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