Making and breaking things: a #3AiFirstCohort reflection

Picture of ANU School of Cybernetics

Written by: ANU School of Cybernetics
28 Jul 2020


Making and breaking things: a #3AiFirstCohort reflection
Making and breaking things: a #3AiFirstCohort reflection

Sometimes the best way to learn is to get hands on, build things, break things and then learn how to fix them. We iterate and evolve our curriculum on the way to a new branch of engineering. Now two years into the experiment, the ‘Maker Projects’ have emerged as a crowd favourite. The newly minted alumni from the first cohort reflect on their experience of making their own prototype cyber-physical system.

Maker project

The Master of Applied Cybernetics is not bound up in theory. It is practical, giving students the chance to get hands on with hardware and software. Throughout the year, students took to the lab. In the first semester the students were encouraged to get creative and overcome any fears they had about making things by choosing a project of relevance to the new branch of engineering that they were passionate about. In the second semester, the students worked in groups to build their own cyber-physical system. For some, this was the first time they had written a line of code or used a 3D printer. For others, the projects were an opportunity to stretch themselves and experiment with machine learning and training an algorithm. Whether the student was a noob (inexperienced) or a pro (experienced), the Maker Projects enabled them to learn about the realities and practicalities of how the cyber and the physical come together to make a cyber-physical system.

Students had to navigate and learn about issues of privacy, usability, data collection, data quality, coding, electronics, 3D printing, laser cutting and much much more. It was a steep learning curve, but many students described the opportunity to actually design, build and implement their own small cyber-physical system as invaluable. It didn’t take long for them to discover their greatest resource: each other. Advice about coding, 3D printing, accessibility, security and more was shared; with students delighting in being able to lend a hand. The other priceless resource was the 3Ai faculty and the staff of ANU Makerspace (click here to check them out), who spent countless hours breaking down code, helping students make their designs work for 3D printing or laser cutting and gently guiding students to solutions.

Why getting hands on matters (the student perspective)?#

When examining a cyber-physical system, being able to conceive how it might have been designed and built is a great way to make sense of and examine the system. 3Ai is working to build a new applied branch of engineering and that means getting hands on: actually designing, building and implementing a cyber-physical system, even if it is small and a prototype. The #3Aifirstcohort came from all sorts of professional backgrounds: theatre, economics, software development, medical device regulation, psychology, physics and teaching, to name a few. It is no wonder they each had a unique way of learning and working. But something about this practical approach hit the mark for most of the cohort… the Maker Projects enabled them to see how the skills and knowledge acquired in the program can be practically applied to real cyber-physical systems and what it takes to build a cyber-physical system at scale.

SenseBreast open hardware developed by Kathy Reid and Jon Oxer. Photo by Kathy Reid CC-BY
SenseBreast open hardware developed by Kathy Reid and Jon Oxer. Photo by Kathy Reid CC-BY

What did we do?#

The individual and group Maker Projects covered a wide range of topics including health, community engagement, tourism, wayfinding and education. Students used a range of technologies including augmented reality, machine learning, 3D printing, laser cutting, object recognition, website development and database management to design and build their cyber-physical systems.

One group built a smart pill box, designed to help people manage complex medication schedules. Another group demo-ed a cognitive cubes learning game, using computer vision and programmatic game play to support people to develop cognitive reasoning skills. There was a wayfinding app, helping visitors to the National Botanic Gardens explore new experiences while also keeping potential non-human (flora and fauna) needs and preferences in mind. And there was an augmented reality wall connecting communities with community leaders.

What was the Aha! moment?#

The Maker Projects gave the students a sense of empathy for the people who are designing and building the systems that we use every day - not to mention the sense of accomplishment that came with building something that actually works! For some students, they loved getting hands on with technologies such as Python (a coding language), a 3D printer or working with machine learning. They found that getting hands on helped them understand some of the theories, ways of thinking and question-framing which are key not only to the Masters Program but also to the way 3Ai works.

The group projects provided students with a place to understand and develop skills for navigating the challenges and benefits of collaborative work in this space. To these projects, they brought in different perspectives and ways of working, and had to learn how to handle those effectively while designing and creating a CPS. So the project was not just about building something – it was about building something as a team with diverse perspectives, priorities, and constraints, all of which had influence over the final prototype.

By the end of the year, traces of the new branch of engineering had emerged. You can hear it in the way the first cohort talked about their prototypes and their design process: how the choices they’d faced and trade-offs they’d made would influence the way people interacted with and interpreted their technology; how infrastructure decisions would influence issues like data security; and the process and repercussions of decommissioning their technical system.

What’s next for the Maker Projects? Some of them have a future in further study, with six of the first cohort going on to a PhD. For others, these prototype cyber-physical systems will be a memento of a life-changing year. Despite the occasional frustrations, late night coding sessions and last minute repairs, #3AiFirstCohort – now the first alumni of 3Ai – will go forward with fond memories of their Maker Project and an in-built toolkit to effectively and ethically manage the technologies that will shape our lives.

The #3Ai2020cohort tackled their individual Maker Projects in Semester 1 and are about to embark on their group projects in Semester 2. We’ll likely see our future cohorts take on the same challenge. We will endeavour to update this page with new reflections from our cohorts to come.

You are on Aboriginal land.

The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

arrow-left bars search times arrow-up