Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Making in College

There's an article on the Make: Blog asking about schools for making stuff. I'd like to respond to this: first of all, if you're into making things, you need to pick what kind of things to determine your major. Personally, if you're into making electronic or mechanical things, I'd recommend either going with Electrical Engineering, or Mechanical Engineering, respectively. However, if you're like me and like making anything, it's electronic or mechanical nature notwithstanding, go instead for a Physics major.
I went to two universities during my undergraduate career: the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Ramapo College of New Jersey. The former was a great place to make things, as they are a large engineering school. However, it is located in Newark, NJ, which is a bit of a crime-ridden pit, especially in the University Heights section where NJIT is located. My major there was Applied Physics. While there, I was mentored by a brilliant professor by the name of Dr. Gordon Thomas. On my first day in his lab, he showed me to the main room of the lab suite and said, "This is your playground. The most important thing is that you have fun, and create something new."
Due to external pressures, I eventually had to leave Dr. Thomas's lab, and moved to Ramapo College. Here I enrolled in the Physics program, which has since changed to Engineering Physics. I also made the acquaintance there of two similarly brilliant professors, Drs. Anderson and Halpern. Dr. Halpern is the reason that the Physics department at Ramapo got started the way that it did, and the reason that the students always have someone to talk to about various issues. He is a professor emeritus ("retired"), and as he says, is "unable to cut his ties with the students." Since he lives locally, that comes in the form of still showing up on campus most days, hanging out in the "Physics Lounge" in G116, and mentoring students.
However, the reason to attend Ramapo College as a maker and as an Engineering Physics student, despite its small size and Liberal Arts emphasis as a college, is Dr. Phil Anderson. Dr. Anderson (not the Nobel Laureate) is the inventor of the magnetic security tag that you see used in retail stores. He is also on the board of directors of a few companies, a licensed pilot who has also flown fighter jets for the Air Force, and an EE, technically; he's full of fun and inspiring stories of vaporizing small fruit with 55-gallon drum sized capacitors, and other fun things like that. In my opinion, however, his biggest contribution outside of his interactions with students is his work in crafting the college's intellectual property policy: thanks to Dr. Anderson, if you invent something at Ramapo, you own it in its entirety. This is very, very rare in a college/university environment, and I have several friends who have used Ramapo's facilities to create things that they later patented. Dr. Anderson also teaches an "Invention for Scientists and Engineers" course that focuses on IP policy and law, prototyping, and other issues involved in making making your profession.
More information on life as a student at Ramapo can be found on my old blog, "Tales from the Lab", and for general advice to Physics students, check out "The Informed Physics Student".

Later I might tell you why not to go to Penn State, where I'm now working, but just take my word on it for now.


Jon said...

Of course, then there's the trouble of finding jobs as Physics major - I believe it tends to be more research and education oriented, so you have to be into that.

Computer Engineering is a good major to consider, as well. There is more of a focus on microcontroller development here.

Pete Marchetto said...

As a physics major and maker, I have to say that I've been able to find quite a few jobs when I looked, and that most of the fun of being a physicist is that research is making with funding.
Besides, now I'm supposed to be in charge of rehabbing a particle accelerator, and I've only had my B.S. for two years.

gilagirl said...

at UCLA, we have a great Design department- depending on what you are making, you can learn about a wide variety of topics, one of which is Physical Computing.
We also have a cross-campus group, called Art|Sci, to bring together research and design. It's worth looking into. We have several coders and science majors who have transferred into the major because of the freedom it provides. We also have a nice lab with power tools and saws and materials, but it's only accessible to grad students at the moment. Our undergrad group is trying to change that, since we want to build things too.
Check us out!

Now that I'm ending my second year in the program, I'm finding the classes I'm required to take in addition to the many free lectures and professors available to me are in line with the Maker sensibility. My next required class is about Arduinos, later classes include coding for the Wii. We are taught to work with video equipment to make interactive games, etc. All things you can incorporate in your own creations.

My friends are Computer Science and Electrical engineers, and their courses seem much more rigorous than mine, in the sense that they are fighting for grades against many more students. They are always jealous of what I get to make! ;-)
You can always double major or take on a minor, or get to know professors.
I feel that our program in the Design department allows for more of a rounded learning process...
But yes! I'm rambling a bit.

In the end... It depends on what you're making and what resources you need. Also think of location- if your school of choice has a Make or similar group nearby, it will be more flexible for you.

Good luck!