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MakerSpaces in Army - a practical application

4 December 2019
MakerSpaces in Army—a practical application

In our two previous blogs on MakerSpaces (Part One and Part Two) we have taken our readers through a look at the Maker philosophy and a review of its potential utility to the Australian Army. It has always been the intention of our project to examine models for implementation in Army and to conduct a pilot MakerSpace as a practical application of our work. From speaking to universities, a variety of academics and military personnel from around the world—alongside reviewing literature—we developed a pilot model that we recently ran at Flinders University. This model takes account of Army’s culture (such as the potential for rank to impede creativity), Army’s strategic aims of partnering with academia, and the practicality of evaluating success. We used this as a basis for our pilot activity, which has yielded some promising results.

So what did we do and how did we do it?

The caveats

To create a framework for a pilot we needed to implement restrictions and constraints to ensure that some of the bias in the current Army Training System was not affecting our activity.  We began by identifying and then mitigating against these subcultures:

  1. Rank – this was mitigated through the limited rank designation (Private to Lance Corporal) for the participants.  Senior ranks could potentially be able to inhibit the process or might dominate with a singular prevailing thought process.
  2. Age – while not necessarily a bias in its own right, it was crucial to establish a group of people with similar experiences post their secondary education and who had access to similar technology over time.  This allowed for a relative baseline to be established.
  3. Group think – in any group this remains a problem, especially in a small Army group that has been inducted the same way. By mixing people from different units and roles, and employing mentors from Flinders University, we mitigated this as much as possible.

Work Health and Safety (WHS) and risk aversion – While both the Army and the Maker movement comply with WHS laws their application of those laws remain different.  The Army places the burden of risk prevention and mitigation on the Commander  and generally deals with both WHS and risk in a prescriptive way, with stringent penalties for not complying.  The Maker philosophy emphasises personal responsibility of risk management. The owners of the space ensure it is a safe environment with compliant tools, safety equipment and emergency controls and then the individual (after completing a 1 – 3hr mandatory induction) can choose to partake in training and mentoring from trained professionals or they can start to explore.

The place

In July 2019—after speaking to a wide variety of public, private and university run MakerSpaces—it was decided that the facilities, environment and staff of Flinders University at Tonsley, South Australia would be the best place to conduct a practical activity. Their site is not only brand new and custom built to enhance creative thinking and innovative thought but is also surrounded by new businesses ranging from start-ups to established innovation pioneers like Tesla.  In short, it was an environment like this that we recognised as being critical for putting our participants into the right mindset. The Flinders University campus, its mix of resident business models, collaboration with industry and TAFE SA created the right environment.

The mentors

The Flinders University mentors that would be in charge of the participants had to fulfil a number of key requirements which we considered necessary to be able to run the activity.  Namely the mentors needed the right mindset; not from an academic perspective but one which would resonate with the participants.  Given the short time for participants to complete the assigned problem—coupled with the need to potentially learn new skills involving high tech equipment—the availability of the mentoring element would be crucial to ensuring that the participant’s rapid transition would be seamless and their learning journey—while steep—would be successful.  The key mentors were Dr Sandy Walker (Industrial Design, CAD and Physics) and Dr Nasser Asgari (Robotics and programing); they were instrumental in achieving the final results. Their work on the problem design and setting up the space was excellent and their attitude and approach to learning was refreshing, inspirational to the candidates, and instilled a level of confidence in attempting this problem.

The mentors (left to right): Dr Nasser Asgari, Lieutenant Colonel Warwick Miller, Dr Axel Bender, and Dr Sandy Walker.
The mentors (left to right): Dr Nasser Asgari, Lieutenant Colonel Warwick Miller, Dr Axel Bender, and Dr Sandy Walker.

The participants

The approach to recruitment was to identify participants through a call for nominations process. The only caveats on the participants is that they had to be either a Private or a Lance Corporal (to minimise their exposure to the Army Training System), appropriately represent gender diversity, be from Corps and trades, be a volunteer, and be physically able to participate.

Students at computers designing with a 3D application on the screen

The final pool of participants were from 1 Combat Brigade (fifteen participants), Defence Science and Technology group (one participant) and Adelaide University Regiment (three participants). The participants were selected from the available pool of applicants and, with the exception of the Officer Cadets, had not been in a University course or activity before. The participants were placed in groups of three, with the exception of the three Officer Cadets from AUR who were placed in a single group. The remaining participants were split into groups of three or four representing a mix of technical and non-technical trades to ensure diversity of perspectives and experience in each group

The problem

Creating a problem that was both challenging and achievable with a pool of participants whose educational levels and abilities were unknown to us was in itself a huge challenge.  Other challenges included the cost of the activity, overall complexity, time and available technology that could be used with little or no formal training.

The problem was twofold: firstly, build a bridge over a predetermined span (1m) using the minimal amount of structural pieces (weight was measured at the end to see who achieved the most efficient bridge design) using only the supplied amount of straws and cardboard; and secondly, the programing of an Edison robot, an Australian designed robot used across various educational institutions to teach elementary robotics and programming skills.

Students at a desk creating a bridge with straws

It was stressed throughout the activity that the goal was not about successfully completing the challenge. Rather, participants needed to be able to explain the methods they used to approach the problem. It remains difficult, however, to convince people that the journey is more important than the destination—especially with soldiers!

The participants began with a rapid immersion course in robotics and then were provided with their own individual Edison robots. They were then taken through the various types of programming languages they could use, which increased in complexity from the basic EdBlocks, intermediate EdScratch and the advance EdPy. The participants were informed they could select which language they felt was the best for their needs, understanding that the more complex the language the more precisely their robots would perform their functions.

After learning the basics of programming, the participants were introduced to industrial design. They were taught creative thinking, structural design and some engineering basics that they would need to construct their bridge.  It was during this time that they were also introduced to Computer Aided Design (CAD), which they could use to design additional parts on their computers. They could then either print these parts on 3D printers overnight or use the CNC router to cut material they could then incorporate into their designs.

Students watching their creations being made in a 3D printer

Now that the participants had all the required tools, they were left in their groups to experiment and design their solutions. The results were surprising.

The results

The participants briefed Dr Axel Bender from DST Group at the end of the second day. All of the participants were able to brief the Maker journey—including their successes and failures (especially responses to their failures)—and what they may do differently if given another opportunity.  All of the groups successfully completed the challenge in the time available, which was a great result. Each group also managed to come up with a unique design, which assisted in the final briefings. All of the teams opted to use the most complex programming language—EdPy—which was an unanticipated outcome.

A group of students behind six bridges created from straws, tape and cardboard

While the data collected will be used to inform an academic paper on the possibilities, perhaps the most powerful testament to the value of the Maker philosophy came from a de-identified participant:

‘I am glad I had to come here, last night I was so scared of today because when I saw what I was being taught I remembered that I was told I was not smart enough at school to do this at Uni.’

This is an example of how the Maker approach differs to the more classic educational models; it empowered an individual who did not fit an educational stereotype.

The future

The success of this experiment challenges the notion of a singular approach to learning and the traditional cultural norms of learning in Army. We need to invest in and select the best people to instruct and mentor; these might not necessarily be the best at their trade or the most intelligent but rather the people who are best able to impart the knowledge and create an environment of success through failure, without stigmatisation.

Army has a good model for training and one that has evolved because of real world problems but it is also currently relatively linear. This can lead to blockages, which stifle innovation and creative thinking.  This activity sought to expand the participant’s knowledge and confidence through mentored exploration. The achieved results clearly show there is merit for considering the adoption of this approach as part of the Training Transformation that is taking place in Army, which could ultimately better prepare our people solving the problems on the next battlefield.

The authors would like to take this opportunity to express our gratitude and thanks to the Flinders University staff, in particular Prof John Spoehr, Dr Sandy Walker, Dr Nasser Asgari, Dr Ann-Louise Hordacre and Cecilia Moretti.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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