MIT Creates Tool for Maker Projects
Tom Spendlove posted on July 24, 2020 |
MIT created a tool that will help students determine the safety of their maker projects.
Student involved in a maker project. (Image courtesy of MIT.)
Student involved in a maker project. (Image courtesy of MIT.)

The summer of 2020 has seen a continuation of businesses canceling both indoor and outdoor activities, but traditional educational summer venues have also been paused. Maker spaces and summer camps intended to help students explore STEM concepts while they are out of school have either shifted to an online format or have been canceled altogether for the year. Knowing that the existing creative energy in young engineers and scientists cannot be created or destroyed, only converted, MIT’s Project Manus and the MIT Environment, Health and Safety office constructed the Remote Making wiki, which outlines the risks of various maker activities. While this is a resource that can be helpful to any maker, the wiki was specifically created for MIT students. The site’s front page stresses that the first step for student makers is to obtain permission from their parents, landlord, or a contact at MIT’s Division of Student Life.

MIT’s Remote Making Wiki is a resource to give makers a good idea of the risk involved with any project, grouped by manufacturing method. The wiki was developed by Martin Culpepper and Tolga Durak’s teams at MIT.

There are general sections on the site for risk, safety plans, and waste disposal, which give directions for makers to start their projects from a safe level.

Decision Making Tool with color-coded risk levels. (Image courtesy of MIT.)
Decision Making Tool with color-coded risk levels. (Image courtesy of MIT.)

Risks are color coded, ranging from green to red. Green activities indicate that if the students have read the instructions for the tool or process and have prepared their workspaces for the activity, then they can proceed with the activity with a minor risk level. Yellow tools might require training before use or significant preparation, but these activities still remain at a low risk. Orange tools have moderate risk, and students using orange level tools must go through a process involving the creation of a safety plan and written approval from the campus Environment, Health and Safety office. Red level tools present the highest risk, and even without the current global pandemic, these tools would require students to use the tools in a controlled environment with supervision. The wiki is set up to guide students through the process—first permission must be obtained from the student’s residence, then permission must be granted from MIT.

Each tool’s wiki page feels like a Safety Data Sheet, with sections devoted to the approval process, the minimum required personal protective equipment (PPE), possible hazards for the tool, advice from other users, and links to additional safety information. Pages also link to the risk acknowledgment forms, safety plan forms, and a tag to email the Remote Making personnel at MIT. During a survey of the wiki, the Torch - Propane, MAPP, or Butane page shows that excellent information is available about the use of the torch, an orange coded risk activity, but that much more information could be added. A quick Google search yielded several training videos on using butane torches, any of which might be helpful in the Links section. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) website also contains information on the safe operation of propane torches, and a list of several accidents that have occurred while people were using torches. The Chemistry page is more broad, but it has a solid section on the “Most important safety considerations,” which shows general safety concerns that apply to performing chemistry experiments in the home. The section also links to MIT’s Chemical safety page.

Doing and making are important parts of STEM education. Students who can tie a project to a class are much more likely to learn and retain the concepts, whether that class is a first-year engineering course, an engineering design course, or even among broader education classes. MIT even claims to be the birthplace of hands-on learning, and the university’s educators try to work with industry to build skills that students will need in the workforce on true-to-life equipment. STEAM education at large would benefit greatly from either another wiki/resource built for all makers to use when they are evaluating safety, or the expansion of MIT’s tool. Our own project boards at Make: Projects also have a section where makers can show what they’ve been doing since quarantine and have areas related to COVID-19, while discussing the safety concerns that are associated with the projects and soliciting advice from the community.

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