There is a conundrum at the heart of twenty-first century engineering education. One the one hand, engineering is a practice innate to human development since our antecedents used a hand axe more than 3 million years ago. The use of tools and technologies in communities has been a feature of most of human history, continued today in maker cultures. In contrast, the formal education system by which professional engineers are developed has become increasingly formalised. Whilst there are good arguments for this formalisation, it can put boundaries around what we consider engineering to be in a way that sits in contrast with its very practical, distributed, community-based origins. Increased internet access coupled with maturity of smaller-scale, digitally-enabled manufacturing systems such as 3D printing have begun to challenge this contrast, and ‘open-source hardware’ (OSH) practices have seen significant growth. OSH fundamentally underpins the open design movement by drawing on open-source software and distributed, digital manufacturing to produce physical products.
Over the last 2 years we have introduced OSH project work to our curriculum and are learning a great deal. The challenges we have encountered span the practical, behavioural and the conceptual but in turn present opportunities for much deeper learning. As one example, when students engage in OSH within the curriculum, they waive their right to ownership of ideas that might otherwise have inherent commercial value (and which, in our University, they would otherwise own). For students to make informed decisions about this in advance of OSH work they need to have a different understanding of intellectual property than the one currently provided. Another example lies in the Health and Safety implications of OSH. University environments are understandably risk-averse and are organised for students to work on assembled, certified equipment. Students adopting, building and amending designs from an external informal community of practice is a poor fit in this culture and can be extremely time-consuming to navigate. Consequently, open design places more responsibility on students to be proactive in understanding what safe practice is (rather than relying on supplier certification). Again, we see this as an opportunity for a step change to deeper, more meaningful understanding. As a third example, we found that students need considerable encouragement to participate fully in open online communities. Their perception of academic supervisors as experts and the curriculum as being a closed system is strong, and it is a developmental process for a student to learn to reach out to the wider open community, consider themselves a valid contributor, and critically evaluate what they are told.
In this session we will share these and other reflections on our work to date. We will verify what exposure participants have had to OSH, bring physical artefacts as exemplars and share some of the projects we have run for those who want to get started. We’ll share how we have responded to ongoing challenges and ask participants to draw on their experience in the open ecosystem (or with OSH) in soliciting more elegant, efficient and robust responses.