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GARAGE PHYSICS: A makerspace for undergraduate brainstorms

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 asked the UW-Madison undergraduate. Make one that is mindcontrolled, 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, oh yes – 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.” Although the mind-controlled quadcopter project did not result in a spinoff company, two physics student collaborators in Copenhagen began developing the copter for use finding some of the 40 million land mines strewn around old battlefields.

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Garage Physics is located in the room where, in the 1940s, Professor Ray Herb invented a high voltage ion beam accelerator used by the Manhattan Project to invent the atomic bomb. That accelerator supported a successful spinoff: 90 employees at National Electrostatics Corporation in Middleton, Wisconsin, make the latest versions of Herb’s device.

The Garage Physics program was inspired by one who got away, says Carlsmith, who teaches modern physics, including topics like relativity and quantum theory. “I had an engineering student who was interested in all kinds of things. We chatted about modeling the human body and a year later, he was at Sector67 (another Madison makerspace) using a 3-D printer to prototype low-cost prosthetic hands for people in Third World countries.” Eric Ronning, the undergrad in question, is now running his third venture, with support from UW– Madison’s Discovery to Product program. “Eric was my inspiration,” Carlsmith says. “I wanted a place for project-oriented learning, for off-thewall 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. One of them, Josh Cherek of Spencer, Wisconsin, is taking advantage of the space’s computers to develop a unique type of search engine. “I’ve been making

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. — Duncan Carlsmith, Professor of Physics

L&S Annual Review 2015-2016

L&S Annual Review, 2015-16  

The Annual Review for the College of Letters & Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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