Foreword - Make: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory (2015)

Make: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory (2015)


In this book, you will learn how to make some amazing things: a carbon arc furnace, cloud chamber, mechanical stroboscope, radiometer, optical micrometer, electromagnet, microtome, spectroscope, and so many others. You will blow glass, catch bugs, and cut the ends off of power cords. You will learn how acids and alkalis taste, what kinds of things live in a drop of water, and how your lungs draw in air. You will measure mass, density, volume, pressure, temperature, time, humidity, cosmic rays, conductivity, and optical polarization. You will isolate hydrogen, build an electric motor, grow rock candy crystals, and literally burn a record of the day’s weather using a Campbell–Stokes sunlight recorder.

While there are a lot of neat things to build, not everything is about making equipment. To look at the apparatus alone would be to miss the point; to not see the forest for the trees. At its heart, this is a science book. Every project comes with a set of questions for you to investigate, frequently challenging you, asking Can you work like a scientist? Beyond these is something yet more: one of the most extraordinary collections of “science fair” research project ideas ever put to paper, with over 1,600 open-ended questions for investigation, spanning the fields of chemistry, physics, biology, and geology.

All considered, this is one of the finest hands-on science project books ever written. Originally published in 1963, it has held up quite well, especially when you consider the pace of scientific and technical progress over the last half century. One reason is that it feels authentic, rather than dumbed down or bowdlerized: There are a fair number of deliciously real (i.e., potentially dangerous) projects that would never be allowed in young-adult science books today, yet were perfectly acceptable in a less litigious age. We understand many hazards better today, but as surely as night follows day, nothing in this book is any more dangerous than it was when the book was first published.

My own personal experience with this book began when I was 10 years old, in 1984, at Ainsworth Elementary School in Portland, Oregon. My fifth grade classroom made regular trips to the school library. It was at one of our regular trips that the librarian spoke to us all about the Dewey Decimal System, and how the library was organized. While I was already an avid reader, I had always simply browsed (as kids of a certain age do) among the set-out books on display whenever I visited the library. Learning about the Dewey Decimal System changed all that. The science books were in the 500s, and since I already knew that I was going to be a scientist when I grew up, the 500s were where I should be spending my time.

The science book section in a school library is apt to be inhabited by all kinds of titles, including the abstract, the esoteric, the dull, and (hopefully) the amazing. Perhaps it is little wonder that this one caught my attention, with its bold and inviting title: BUILD-IT-YOURSELF SCIENCE LABORATORY. Because, well, that was exactly what I wanted to do.

What I don’t know is how many other people had this kind of experience growing up. In a sense, simply by attending school in Portland, I was (unknowingly) growing up within the author’s local sphere of influence. Raymond E. Barrett was a teacher in the Portland school district for seven years before he was hired in 1959 as the education director of OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry—a post where he remained for 22 years. At OMSI, Barrett developed new hands-on, experiential approaches to teaching science. He broadened the appeal with classes, workshops, and camps. He provided leadership for science education both in the Pacific Northwest and across the nation, teaching teachers better ways to teach science.

During his years as a teacher, and later in his first few years at OMSI, Barrett began to develop a set of lesson plans for do-it-yourself science projects targeted at middle and high school students. The plans were designed to stimulate interest in the sciences, invoking Galileo, Newton, and Faraday, who (as the story goes) constructed their laboratories from the simplest possible materials. Through the plans, one could build or improvise some 200 pieces of laboratory equipment from mostly household materials, and use them in over 2,000 experiments.

The early 1960s were in so many ways a different time. There was the Sputnik crisis, still lingering. America’s cold war adversaries were smart and technological; we had to compete. The space race was on. The United States had a credible human spaceflight program, and putting earthlings on the moon was a realistic priority. Science education was booming. And people were hungry for better ways to teach science.

For all of these reasons—plus the fact that it was simply good—Barrett’s “build it yourself science” program became so popular that individuals and institutions across the US ordered more than 4,000 sets of his mimeographed lesson plans. It even led to Barrett having his own local television show, teaching science with home-built equipment. The program’s fame eventually attracted the attention of the Doubleday company, which contracted Barrett to collect his lesson plans into book form. Barrett refined and expanded his plans, and the results are here in the book that you have before you, illustrated by OMSI staff artist Joan Metcalf.

By the time that I had come across the book in the mid 1980s, the book was already 20 years old, and Barrett had already retired from OMSI.

As a child, I remember being particularly delighted at one little “discovery” that I made while working on a project from the book. I had been looking at tiny protists in drops of pond water through my school-grade microscope, but found them hard to see, since they were small, fast, and transparent. A project in the book talked about using crossed polarizers in a microscope to look at crystals or a fish tail, but it seemed like they would be able to solve the problem with the microbes. I modified my microscope to have polarized filters above and below the sample (“Polarized Light Filters”), having scrounged the filters from a set of improvised 3D glasses. Through crossed polarizers, you can only see things between them that rotate the polarization of light; everything else will simply be black. And wow, what an effect: the protists were still small and fast, but now they were glowing white on a black background. I had (re)discovered a primitive form of dark-field microscopy, and it was amazing.

In modern times, our contemporary maker and maker education movements have helped to rekindle our cultural interest in hands-on education, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and STEAM (STEM with art) fields, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s.

In some ways, it is an uphill battle. We live in an era now where zero tolerance guidelines mean that kids routinely get suspended or expelled from school for possession of “dangerous” items like scissors. A professor friend of mine relayed to me an anecdote about a parent who recently called in to complain that their child was being placed at risk of infection from sharing needles because their youth e-textile class did not routinely sterilize their sewing needles. You might find that it’s not trivial to draw blood with fat kid-friendly sewing needles, let alone puncture two different students such that you would have a credible risk of infection. Did they simply confuse this “sharing needles” with the very high risk of sharing hollow hypodermic needles among intravenous drug-users?

There are signs of hope. Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler’s book 50 Dangerous Things (you should let your children do) was a great reminder that well-planned but potentially risky activities are an incredible teaching tool for learning how to do things safely and well. And makerspaces and maker education are helping people to recognize that children and young adults need time to play, tinker, explore, make things with their hands, and learn on their own. Learning how to build things is an important part of developing physical intuition, learning about how the world really works, and helping to hone critical thinking skills.

And for me personally, this is the book that taught me how to make things.

—Windell H. Oskay, October 2014