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Q&A: MathWorks and the Maker Movement

Dec. 30, 2015
Madhu Govindarajan, Partner Manager at MathWorks, talks with Technology Editor Bill Wong about the Maker Movement and how MathWorks is engaging with developers in this space.
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Madhu Govindarajan, Partner Manager, MathWorks

The Maker movement has garnered a wide range of hobbyists, developers, and professionals who are taking advantage of low-cost development platforms like Raspberry Pi, as well as new tools like 3D printers, to create an amazing collection of devices and systems. It’s a movement that major vendors like MathWorks are following.

I talked with Madhu Govindarajan, partner manager at MathWorks, to see what the company thinks about the movement and how it’s addressing the enterprise.

Wong: How did MathWorks come to identify with the Maker Movement?

Govindarajan: Maker movements have been around for a long time, but in recent years, the trend is that technology projects are at the heart of them. The makers involved in this movement are not only focused on being creators or innovators—they also care deeply about sharing their ideas, educating each other, and being part of a larger community.

MathWorks, with its roots in academia, is passionate about building easy-to-learn software (MATLAB and Simulink) that can be used by engineering and science students for hands-on project-based learning projects. These tools are a natural fit for makers as well, who are building cool projects with low-cost hardware, for example an Arduino weather station and a motion-sensor camera with a Raspberry Pi. We see these examples practically everywhere we look, from Maker Faires and student competitions sponsored by MathWorks, to the STEM initiatives we lead, where we teach the educators how to incorporate hands-on projects into their curricula.

Wong: How important is the hands-on component of being a maker? How are makers engaging in this hands-on way and collaborating with one another?

Govindarajan: I recollect seeing an ED talk in which the speaker said that learning even at the earliest stage involves a hands-on component. I agree that physical, project-based learning is a key contributor to the success of any education process. 

A great example is Kit Fuderich, a middle-school and high-school technology teacher, who participated in the Teacher’s Pet Robotics Challenge hosted by element14. His winning project, “Rice Krispies Loader,” is a testament for hands-on learning. The project features a 3D-printed device and a force-resistant sensor to teach concepts of robotics in a fun way. He will bring the concepts and tools he learned (including Simulink) into his own classroom.

As far as collaborating with one another, Kit and other makers use both online forums and physical events. For example, MakerZone allows makers to share MATLAB and Simulink project resources for different low-cost hardware like Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and LEGO Mindstorms. Physical events like MakerFaire and FabFest are another popular avenue for makers to collaborate and get inspired by others.

Wong: What does MathWorks see as the top trends in the maker movement?

Govindarajan: A few trends have started taking root in industry and academia thanks to the maker movement. One involves prototyping using low-cost hardware, reducing the time it takes to bring ideas to products. (As an example, here is a story on how NASA interns developed control software for a quadcopter and implemented it using Arduino for proof of concept.)

Another trend is the confluence of traditional arts and technology. Wearable technology is a great example for mixing traditional arts with technology. It was a project started by makers that’s now being adopted by companies in the commercial space.

Wong: How is this movement redefining the engineering culture?

Govindarajan: It is fascinating to see makers from a diverse set of backgrounds, often not STEM-related, integrating engineering principles into their projects. This movement has also inspired engineering schools from around the world to come up with innovative ways to teach these principles via project-based learning. The maker movement has also reaffirmed the core belief of engineering: Validate your ideas before you turn them into a solution.   

Wong: What has MathWorks been doing to facilitate and/or support the maker movement?

Govindarajan: MathWorks started supporting the maker movement by sponsoring a local makerspace, Artisan’s Asylum near Boston, Mass. This relationship evolved over time, with MathWorks providing access to our software for all of its members and offering courses on the use of our software for robotics.

The success of this relationship led MathWorks to support makerspaces in different parts of the world (including in the U.S., Spain, UK, and Sweden) by providing their members with access to the software and training courses. We have also exhibited at Maker Faires and Fab Lab events to educate makers on how MathWorks tools can help them with their hardware projects.

Wong: What are some challenges makers run into with low-cost hardware and how does MathWorks help with overcoming those challenges?

Govindarajan: One of the biggest challenges that makers run into is that they need to learn different programming tools for the various hardware devices used in their projects. MathWorks provides two core platforms, MATLAB and Simulink, which can be used to program Arduino, Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone Black, and many other devices.

With MATLAB, makers can communicate with and control their hardware interactively without having to re-compile their code. MATLAB’s built-in math, engineering, and plotting functions help them analyze and visualize the data collected from the low-cost hardware. For instance, in one video, we demonstrate how MATLAB is used to bring in images from a camera board connected to a Raspberry Pi, and then leverage available functions to implement a face-detection algorithm on these images.

Simulink, on the other hand, enables users to develop controls and signal-processing algorithms and use automatic code generation to run them standalone on the hardware. In one particular tutorial, we show how to “center the servo motors on a robot” while monitoring the signals on Simulink, and then generating and downloading the code onto the robot.

Wong: Do you have to be a professional engineer who is a maker to use MATLAB and Simulink?

Govindarajan: MATLAB and Simulink are not limited to professional engineers. For example, MATLAB Home provides access to MATLAB for personal use, and is popular among makers. In one project, a behavioral scientist used MATLAB to automate speech analysis. Also, college students use MATLAB and Simulink extensively for their coursework and projects, and some even participate in the bi-annual MATLAB and Simulink student challenge.

MathWorks recently collaborated with i2 Learning, which runs an immersive STEM program, to create a course called Bytes and Beats to teach kids programming. This course is centered on making music with sensors using the same software and programming language used by scientists and engineers.

Wong: What are the top things that a budding maker should have in his/her toolbox?

Govindarajan: Up-and-coming makers with an inspiration to innovate should consider the following approaches:

• Look at things around you as more than just toys—a simple screwdriver can be used to open up a whole new world of experimentation.

• Take “getting started” types of courses with simple electronics (soldering, circuits, etc.).

• Join a local makerspace and attend maker events.

• Take courses in programming.

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