Build a Bigger Mousetrap

Mark Perez, Rose Harden and the team behind the Life Size Mousetrap have taken a childhood game and turned it into a sideshow spectacle that any carny would be proud to be a part of. The structure itself is an impressive Rube Goldberg style machine, wrought large. Take a marble from the kid’s game, and turn it into a bowling ball. Now expand everything else to scale, and you’ll have some idea what I’m talking about. The bathtub is a real bathtub. The diver is the size of a person. The machine spreads over a 60×100 foot area, and weighs on the order to 50,000 lbs. It’s a pretty impressive engineering feat. The show has been touring for about seven years, and the team did some necessary rebuilding and refurbishing this year to keep things running smoothly.

As an entertainment, the show is more than just the machine. There’s music, composed and performed specifically for Life Size Mousetrap by the one-woman band Esmerelda Strange. Can-can dancers dressed as mice, unicycle riding clowns, and humorous patter accompany the already impressive display of physics in motion. Life Size Mousetrap recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund their efforts. Part of the funding will go towards further developing their STEM curriculum. If there’s anyone who can make engineering seem approachable and fun, it’s the creators of Life Size Mousetrap.


Maker Faire was very happy to have Mark, Rose and crew back to World Maker Faire in New York this year. It’s one of my favorite things at Maker Faire, and I look forward to it every year. If you missed the show, be sure to check their webpage or their Facebook page for announcements.

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Cornell Engineering and the Maker Pro Catalyst

From MakerCon in New York, Cornell Systems Engineering faculty member Dr. David R. Schneider talks about developing student makers within their engineering program. He also discusses the success of the Intel-Cornell Cup, a college-level embedded design competition which motivates student makers into becoming professional designers.

Combining Cardboard Ridiculousness with Novice Engineering Fun

One of the joys I’ve experienced through adding to the Makezine blogging universe is the feedback I receive from individuals who have discovered my channel and cardboard creations. It is nice to receive emails and comments from people who previously never realized just how versatile cardboard can be in inventive pursuits. People discovering the extremes to which cardboard can be warped and fashioned to make anything possible.

Behold the Nunee New.

One question I recently received was from a viewer who wanted my personal reflection on, “… the most ridiculous yet fun and challenging concept I’ve ever made?”

Now, I have made some truly bizarre concepts in the five years I have operated my Homemade Game Guru channel. Beyond the standard fare of cardboard swords, geek crafts and children’s crafts, some of my more ostentatious designs have included a world record attempt board game that measured 775 square feet, a ‘booger’ whip (made out of that cheap sticky hand toy you get out of vending machines or from dollar stores) and of course my most ambitious and insane idea to date – an above-ground giant cardboard swimming pool that actually held water (until I filled it to the point of exploding open and flooding three backyards – good times!)

I’m actually planning to redo the cardboard swimming pool idea again this summer. The amazing reception the original 2011 video produced has been truly inspiring and I plan to share the updated initiative with you all come July.

However, as an answer to the original question of what I believe is my most ridiculous yet fun and challenging idea ever … well, I would have to say it is my Nunee New recreational mobile concept created on June 22, 2013.

It was in late May 2013 when I decided, out of the blue, to combine three mobile toy concepts into one mash-up model made out of cardboard and scrap wood. I wanted to fuse a Segway, a skateboard, and a scooter into one new form. That new form became the Nunee New!

The basic idea was to make a device that could stabilize like a Segway, would be sturdy like a skateboard and could be used to do tricks like a scooter, but made mostly out of cardboard. It was a challenging engineering task – especially for someone with little engineering knowledge. What I really had was an improbable idea and more ambition than sense (as if that was going to stop me).

It took three weeks of trial and error and more than 20 sheets of cardboard to figure out how to make the base of my new contraption strong enough to sustain the weight of an average person. I decided to utilize metal castors as the wheels. At $4 a pop and a weight threshold of 100 lbs. each, the castors were a great inexpensive option to support the base of the invention. Using something metal did feel a bit like cheating, but ensuring I didn’t crack open my head was more important than reinventing the cardboard wheel.

The concept’s main handle/control was a fused scrap piece of wood I found at a construction site two years previous. It was actually two pieces of improperly cut wood that somewhat resembled a single control module with a shaft. I picked it up from a recycling bin when I was driving by a housing development. Whenever I find a uniquely shaped object in my travels, I usually hold on to it and wait for the right idea to come along to use it. The Nunee New was the idea this scrap wood object was waiting for!

Being a Trekkie fan boy, I converted the scrap wood piece into the concept’s control module reminiscent of the USS Enterprise’s (NCC-1701-D) control panel. A splash of geek makes everything so much cooler!

To make the Nunee New more like a Segway, I designed it to move forward by pushing the control module forward (with the help of a foot powered kick push) and to get it to stop, the control module was pulled back to break using a wood stump and duct tape I placed as the bottom rear stopper.

Amazingly, construction glue was all that was needed to keep the contraption secured together. With a blast of spray paint, the finished design was ready for the outside world.

I had a blast zooming around the gravel paths at a nearby park. Enjoying the cockeyed WTF stares I received from fellow skateboarders as I passed them on a cardboard board.

As for the unusual name “Nunee New,” my love of the classic Sesame Street “Typewriter Guy” was the inspiration. I made a video called How the Nunee New Got Its Name to best explain the rationale behind the odd name choice.

So there you have it! The most ridiculous yet fun and challenging concept I have made … for now!

Makerspace in the Classroom


During my eight-plus years of teaching students in a makerspace-style environment, I have witnessed first-hand a surge of interest in problem-based curriculum from both our youth and their parents due to its ability to engage students and to help them retain the knowledge.

This is why the marriage between the classroom and the makerspace is so potent. It fills the gap between classroom theory and the physical world. Historically, sparse classroom budgets have been the root cause for a lack of modern equipment in the classroom. This made sense, of course, when an entry-level 3D printer could cost more then $20,000. Now, a derivative of the technology can be purchased with the proceeds of a single bake sale, or even through parent donation.

The beauty of the makerspace is its ability to not only inspire students, but to accelerate their knowledge intake through exciting and imaginative curricular application. In order to facilitate this, schools need to consider the design constraints imposed by makerspace equipment and how it might affect classroom layout.


Wicked Cool Education from NarwhalEdu

NarwhalEdu wants to bring ‘wicked cool’ open online engineering classes to high school students. Open online courses are nothing new, but NarwhalEdu wants to include an open hardware kit along with the course. Everyone taking the course can design and build a set of robots as they learn new concepts.

  • A drawing robot arm to learn about kinematics, battery calculations, etc.
  • A quadcopter to learn about controls.
  • Three small swarmbots to learn about swarm behavior.

After the course, the student keeps the kit and can go on to build whatever they like with it. The kit includes three servos, one Arduino Nano I/O shield, one microcontroller, a power supply, a couple of potentiometers, laser cut enclosure parts, a 3D printed pen-holder and Sharpie pen to fit it, and plenty of fasteners.


Nancy Ouyang, CEO of NarwhalEdu presented at MAKE’s Hardware Innovation Workshop in New York. (Click to see her presentation.)

NarwhalEdu is more than half-way through its Kickstarter campaign right now. It’s a great project to back if you care about making engineering fun and accessible. Even pledging at the lowest level will help raise their popularity on the Kickstarter page so that more people will find them.

Using Scooters and Go-Karts to Disrupt Engineering Education

Charles Guan is not a typical engineer. He not only makes electric vehicles very well, but is currently inspiring and teaching students as an instructor in a class he created. His mission is to give engineering students a meaningful hardware experience as early in their career as possible, by requiring them to work through the challenges of sourcing parts and building something reasonably complex – a working electric vehicle. The class has now been successfully run three times, with the current curriculum based around two-person teams, each of which is allocated a budget, access to a well-equipped shop, and a semester to build (and compete with) their vehicle.


The MITERS scooter brigade at this year’s World Maker Faire New York

Of course, getting people interested in the class isn’t hard, especially with the hum of electric motors and joyous students zipping around the halls in scooters or go-karts. Charles has been building electric vehicles for years and has slowly built up a following of individuals with similarly-built scooters and karts (who’ve traveled to Maker Faire, as seen above). By initially assisting in a special section of the 2.007 Mechanical Engineering class at MIT, and eventually taking it over to become an instructor, Charles has been able to continue shepherding engineering students off to go-karting glory.

So, why does all this matter? Well, I believe the way Charles has been teaching this course is the exact way more engineering courses should be taught, and I’d like to entertain the idea that this could end up being a model for other schools to follow in the future.

The Story of 2.00GoKart

Charles Guan

Charles Guan. Photo Credit: Miho Kitagawa

I met Charles in person for the first time at the 2011 Atlanta Mini Maker Faire, which he brought his treaded skateboard, the LandBearShark, to. I knew of Charles thanks to connections he had with a few of my Studio friends at Georgia Tech and had been following his blog for years, reading along as he built and documented (in extreme detail) all happenings related to his crazy builds (fanscooter, anyone?). After spending more time with Charles and watching him work, I realized that he has more mechanical design and general fabrication knowledge than almost all other engineers I’ve met, and is extremely well-qualified to be instructing a group of engineering students.

He wrote about the creation of this scooter class in his recent “blog novel”, descriptively titled “ON 2.00GOKART; OR, DESIGNING A DESIGN CLASS TO DISRUPT DESIGN CLASSES AS WE KNOW IT; OR, HOW TO MAKE MIT UNDERGRADUATES BUILD SILLY GO-KARTS SO YOU DON’T HAVE TO”. It brings up a lot of fantastic points about the current state of Engineering in higher education, and think it’s worth the read (just grab a drink first). The summary of the class structure as it stands now is:

  • Each team is given a set of batteries, one wheel, and a budget of $500 to spend on parts.
  • The students must search for and buy their own parts (including more wheels), track down datasheets, and plan around shipping lead times as they go.
  • Along the way, they learn to use rapid prototyping machining techniques like laser cutting and waterjet cutting to put their vehicles together quickly – they only have 7 weeks to go from design to a rolling mechanical frame.

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Students work hard to get wheels on their karts in time for the mandatory rolling frame inspection.

Skills like part-sourcing and machining seem rare in Engineering education nowadays, and that’s unfortunate. Sure, the theory is extremely important, but it might not get you 100% of the way to solving a real-world engineering problem. Charles sums up the distinction in his blog post nicely:

“An engineering class teaches you to use a theoretical and analytical approach to solve a well-defined problem, and a design class teaches you to use a practical approach backed by engineering science to solve an ill-defined or open-ended problem.”

Students encounter ill-defined and open-ended problems during the design process all the time, where text books and lab manuals aren’t very helpful. Giving them the freedom to create these problems, and subsequently solve them for themselves, is extremely valuable. Finding solutions to those ill-defined problems gives them an increased sense of prowess in mechanical design, leading to additional self exploration and therefore less bothering of the instructor. Furthermore, when students get to see (and own) the entire design and fabrication process from start to finish, they will be better equipped for dealing with larger and more complex projects (such as a Capstone-type class) because they’re already familiar with the structure.

65315_10151522220483928_418646555_nOne of the crazy karts in progress. Check out the highlight video for more.

One major difference between Charles’ class and the typical introductory design class is the pressure on the students to come up with a design and Bill of Materials from scratch, which means not all the problems they encounter will be solvable with a file and some elbow grease. Understanding how to look for parts and managing time spent between part shipments are very real challenges, as Charles explains on his blog:

“The first time many MechE students see shopping for parts here is in our senior classes. I have counted more instances of people producing very convoluted solutions to a problem that 5 minutes of rummaging through the McMaster-Carr catalog could have avoided, than I care to disclose.”

Guys, this is important stuff. Fabricating something in five hours when it could’ve been bought in five minutes is a lot of wasted time, and time is money. In the spirit of learning about how (and where) to buy parts, I highly recommend any aspiring engineer or curious maker to spend some time on McMaster-Carr, even if you never make an order. There’s so much good information there; simply browsing their catalog and reading about intriguing parts is a great way to learn. (example: did you know you could buy this many varieties of cable tie?)

Jumping on the scooter bandwagon

Slight diversion: after reading about Charles’ initial 2.00GoKart endeavors and watching some school friends build vehicles, I decided to build a scooter for myself.


The author’s electric scooter.

Thanks mainly to Charles’ fantastic instructable, I was able to build a working scooter during the Summer of 2012 (you can read more about that here). I learned an enormous amount in those few months, like how much more careful you have to be with tolerances when working with metal than you do with wood, countless machining tricks, and how to buy parts (HobbyKing orders with large batteries coming from China take a painfully long time).

I spent a week or so on the CAD before building anything, and with the help of a well-equipped shop, built the thing. I’m willing to bet that 3/4 of my total machining time up to that point came from that build, and I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything now.

Where to Go from Here?

The main challenge (and goal) here is figuring out how to replicate this class elsewhere. There are three main issues with this:

  • Scalability: assuming there’s a dozen teams of two in a larger class, can it be structured in a way that allows a dozen custom orders to get sent out every week for a semester? How would you move from 24 students to 96? Oh, and “just buy parts in bulk that everyone can use” doesn’t work here, since that would negate the whole “learn how to buy” aspect of the course.
  • Accessibility: the class relies on a well-equipped machine shop, including waterjet machining and laser cutting access. How could it be run in a more basic “home shop” or “garage shop” style environment? Charles has explored the idea of machining-less design in the past, with his Chibikart instructable (although it does still imply the use of a waterjet service).
  • Dissemination: the class is heavily dependent on a handful of highly knowledgeable and passionate instructors. Should the Electric Vehicle community be searched for potential instructors, or can that role only be filled by those affiliated with the school in question?

These aren’t easy questions to answer, but I think that in addition, the larger, overarching hurdle is getting the Engineering departments of the world onboard. As far as I can tell, deviation from the norm isn’t something that happens quickly or easily in higher education.


I’ll suggest another option for getting this going elsewhere, based mainly on the need for qualified, passionate instructors: other schools adapt a design class of similar structure, but instead of limiting it to an EV theme, why not open it up to instructors who’re knowledgeable in a specific subject and have a desire to teach? For example, alongside Charles’ EV class one year, a group of Lincoln Labs researchers helped run a similar lab section where students built small UAVs – planes, multirotors, and helicopters. Something similarly costly (a few hundred dollars per student, per semester) could be done with CNC machines, I think: two-student teams are required to build a working CNC in one semester.

Are we crazy for thinking that getting this out there is possible? What’s the best way to spread the hands-on learning love in higher education? Please let us know what you think with a comment below.