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Garage Physics Drives Brainstorms

Duncan Carolsmith runs Garage Physics, the department’s makerspace.

March 03, 2016
Prof. Duncan Carlsmith and a student work on a problem.

Photo by David Tenenbaum

To physics professor Duncan Carlsmith, a student’s proposal to make a four-rotor helicopter drone was fine fodder for what he calls “garage physics.” But why stop at a quadcopter, he told the undergraduate. Make one that is mind-controlled, so a person with severe movement impairment could think: “Go open the fridge and show me what’s inside,” and that would actually happen.

And round up some more undergrads, have them build it in one semester, and with the help of undergrad business students, draft a business plan: Would anybody want to buy such a brilliant drone?

Of course there were a few challenges, but that’s really the point, says Carlsmith, who runs Garage Physics, a makerspace in the bowels of Sterling Hall. “Just try something. It doesn’t really matter what it is. Make it fun, and low cost.”

The Garage Physics program was inspired by a former student who was interested in “all kinds of things,” says Carlsmith, who teaches modern physics, including topics like relativity and quantum theory. “I wanted a place for project-oriented learning, for off-the-wall ideas that are not part of the usual professor’s interests. I vowed there would be a home for the next creative, motivated kid.”

Garage Physics supports independent research and entrepreneurial student research and development, with about a dozen undergraduates active at any one time.

As a ringmaster of this undergraduate creativity, Carlsmith relishes his role as brainstormer. Visualizing and creating a radical high-tech product can change a student’s life, he says. “They begin to realize, ‘I am actually a real person with my own unique talents.’ Many past students from the Garage are flying. They will graduate and do great things.”

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