Building a Community of Makers

This Houston fab lab is taking lessons from the impact of Hurricane Harvey to students, helping them learn how their STEM work can be a force for good in the community.

When Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast in August 2017, that was the start of devastation that eventually affected 13 million people, damaged or destroyed 204,000 homes and resulted in a death toll of 68, more than half in the Houston metro area. At the peak of this category 4 storm, on September 1, a third of Houston was under water (some areas had received more than 50 inches of rainfall in a single 24-hour period), forcing 39,000 people out of their homes and into shelters.

But the devastation varied widely. People were affected differently depending on where they lived. Brent Richardson, who lives a couple of hundred feet from the Lake Houston Dam, for example, said his house didn't flood. Whereas the house right along the lake belonging to his in-laws did.

That experience led Richardson, who directs the BakerRipley Fab Lab in Houston, to take on a DIY project to create sensors that could let homeowners in the vicinity of the lake track water levels more accurately. Now he's using that project to teach K-12 and college students about how their STEM efforts could have real-world application for their communities.

Cultivating Makers Within the Community

BakerRipley is as embedded into Houston as any nonprofit could be. The community development organization has existed for 112 years, with centers all over the region, delivering a multitude of programs addressing healthcare, job connections and financial help, preschools and Head Start, senior care, disaster recovery, utility assistance. What it didn't offer was a maker space.

That changed in 2014 when BakerRipley began planning its next community campus in East Aldine, a state management district that crosses into Houston's city limits. During planning sessions, residents there told the organization they wanted to teach their kids more science and expose them to technical fields that would help prepare them for the future.

Armed with a hefty grant won from Chevron and the Fab Foundation, when the new center opened in 2018, it included a 5,000-square foot maker space intended to serve as a technical resource for K-12 and university students and the rest of the community.

That space was outfitted with laser and vinyl cutters, 3D printers and scanners, an electronics station and a computer lab, a CNC mill for making circuit boards and a large-format CNC router for cutting plywood, as well as fully equipped metal and wood shops. The grant also enabled "Fab Lab Houston," as it was named, to set up a 32-foot trailer with a mobile unit containing much of the same type of gear, all if it loaded onto carts with wheels so that the equipment could either be used on board the trailer or offloaded and set up as labs inside schools.

Building a Community of Makers

Images courtesy of Chevron

The STEM Education Angle

As soon as Fab Lab opened, it began working with BakerRipley's youth programs to develop "Young Makers," an after-school program offered at several middle schools around Houston two days a week. As Richardson explained, "youth staff" are trained on curriculum developed in the Lab and go out to do "unplugged low-tech STEM activities to get kids familiar with project-based learning and the design engineering cycle so they can be problem solvers and apply those skills they're learning in the classroom through hands-on projects." The students also get opportunities to come to the Fab Lab for digital fabrication lessons.

Then there's the Youth Series, a 12-week program with workshops in the Lab to teach middle and high schoolers how to use tools, follow the design process and get certified to work with the equipment independently. Students who complete that curriculum can go onto to become "Fab Lab ambassadors," who participate in additional training, group activities, and self-directed projects; they also volunteer and help out with community projects.

And there are the spring break and summer camps. This summer, for example, the nearby Lone Star College-North Harris Campus, which has its own makerspace, will be bringing summer camp students to the Fab Lab to help them build 3D printers that the kids will then be able to take home.

The University of Houston, which holds middle school "innovators" camps in the summer, will use the mobile Fab Lab to help its campers learn engineering design process and how to create inventions.

Building a Community of Makers 

The Fab Lab also offers on-site half-day professional development workshops for teachers to help them learn how to do STEM activities in their own classrooms, which include "take-home kits" that allow them to practice and apply what they've picked up immediately. As part of that PD, according to Richardson, teachers learn how to use resources their schools might already have — such as 3D printers — and integrate units on those into their lessons and pick up "different classroom management strategies around those projects."

Finally, faculty from U Houston's College of Education bring pre-service teachers into the Lab to practice what they're learning in their courses "through hands-on versus traditional worksheets and paper and pencil," said Richardson. "The new teachers coming out of college are the ones that are going to have the greatest impact on continuing to advance education."

Outreach is the name of the game, he added. "If we could impact one teacher that teaches 100 students a year, then that's pretty significant." The goal: to introduce the maker culture and STEM topics to a much larger population of students through the Fab Lab than what its own staff of five can facilitate on its own.

The Sensor Project

None of that educational outreach came into play for what has become known as the Lake Houston Data Visualization Project — at least not at first.

"We're always talking to people — including students — about projects that relate to their lives," Richardson explained. Hurricane Harvey has proven to be a big inspiration in that regard. For example, one individual using the Fab Lab is building "space-saving furniture because he has multiple family members living in his house due to the flood."

Building a Community of Makers 

And all Richardson wanted was to create a better way for his in-laws to track the level of the water in their part of the lake. He'd always assumed that the water level would be the same across the entire lake and that the three sensors already tracking that data were sufficient for everybody living along the water's edge. Not so, apparently. Where the San Jacinto River feeds into the lake, as an example, sand piles up, especially during major storms. "Areas that used to be four feet or 12 feet deep might actually be just a couple of inches deep now because of the sand deposits from the hurricane," he said. Those homes above the sand deposits will have water rise faster and with greater variance than the ones without.

Richardson's idea was to install a sensor in his in-laws' backyard that, "through a bit of math," could calculate the amount of time it took to send an ultrasonic wave to hit the water and bounce back. As the water rises, that time gets shorter, which can be used to calculate the distance, he said. The resulting data is uploaded to a server for viewing online via WiFi. Because it uses ultrasonic, the sensor works day or night. "There's a graph online that my in-laws could look at to see that change. So, if they're out of town and a storm is coming in, they can see it and know if the water is rising in their backyard."

In the event of a storm, those in the know could then move their goods upstairs or haul stuff away before the roads became impassable. "I think the more information you have, the better prepared you can be, whether it's just moving things out of your backyard or putting plans into action that you've discussed with your family," Richardson noted.

He built the sensor in the Fab Lab and as he started talking about it to others, he quickly realized there was a lot of interest. That's when the project began to take off. "My in-laws' experience was the same experience that thousands of people have that were near the lake. That's where it went from being something that was personal to me to being something that could be used to provide a service to the community."

So far, Richardson's sensor is the only one that has been deployed. Two others are in the works, ready to be installed, but "we're still in the testing and hardening phase," he noted. "Part of the process of the Fab Lab is that we get to real-time demo and then improve. As we discover different things that could be improved, we can do it in a real-time and continue that process and use it as an example to show community members and students what that looks like."

Now, the Fab Lab is figuring out how to use the sensor project to teach students about electronics, such as soldering, he added. "Instead of [making] a fun trinket to put on your nightstand, you could say you learned how to solder something; you could talk about the sensor that you helped build that is now 'sensor 13' on Lake Houston."

To demonstrate how the sensor works, the project has also morphed into a data visualization art project, "that we're using to show the information in a creative way," said Richardson. Built in time to demonstrate during SXSWedu in Austin, every time a sensor uploads another value to the database online, robots, attached to wooden towers, use light-up propellers to display the new number. "They change colors, and the size of the circle and the height of which robots turn on change, depending on what the value is," he explained, adding that the set-up "gives us another thing we can make with students and educators and then also talk about the way that we represent information."

Providing Students with Opportunities to Be Successful

The project speaks to the nature of the Fab Lab: coming up with something useful in a "community environment," as Richardson called it, and uncovering "similar needs," whether that's monitoring water levels for possible flooding or getting kids involved in STEM.

"If middle school students turn off to STEM at an early age and see it as something they're not good at, then it's very hard to get them to re-engage and pursue that later on. So, we have 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds making life decisions because they didn't like the times table. And that's not really a great reflection on what all you can do with STEM or the capacity that students have for being successful in science, technology, engineering and math," said Richardson. "Our pursuit in the Fab Lab is to give students an experience where they can be successful, apply the learning that they've maybe not seen as important or understand the use of it in a fun, enriching way, so that when they go back to the classroom and they have the opportunity to take algebra or not, maybe they'll decide to do it because they built a robot and felt really great about themselves. Providing opportunities for them to be successful is one of our main goals."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.