Beth Kolko

Autumn 2017

Hackademia: Learning CNC Machining to Resist the Robot Takeover

We hear more and more that people are afraid robots are going to take their jobs - and they are right! - but that doesn't mean anyone has to really get left behind. 

This group will work with the founder of a machining company, Danielle Applestone, and Professor Kolko to explore how to make it easier for non-technical people to learn how to design, build, and run robots, even without formal education. 

Over two quarters, we will do the work and the research to create a scalable, deployable program that makes it possible for non-technical people to gain proficiency and familiarity with robots that manufacture parts for everything from electronics, to prosthetic hands, to jewelry.

No 3D printers this time. We'll be working with CNC (computer numerical control) machines. No specific technical skills are required. If you can put together Ikea furniture, you've got the necessary tool set for the group.

The group will be coordinated by faculty member Kolko, and we'll be working with Danielle who is CEO of Bantam Tools. The goal is to create a program that can be deployed eventually to hundreds of libraries, community centers, and makerspaces, where anyone from any background can gain access to manufacturing robots and learn how to use them. This is a great opportunity to gain hands on experience learning tools, to create educational materials to help others learn tools, and to conduct ongoing research on technical skill acquisition in non-formal educational settings.

This DRG is planned over two quarters. We will first build a familiarity with desktop CNC machines through a set of three most basic projects: one for electronics, one for simple engraving, and one for basic 2.5 dimension objects. 

The first goal with immersion into these three projects is to reflect on this process and determine where the biggest sources of friction are in the learning and doing process and devise a method for removing these sources of friction with a training plan. Is there friction in downloading the software? Gathering materials? Fear of the machines? 

The second goal is to figure out the optimal organization for group training and create a playbook. What background information do people need to know? What size group is best for getting to know these machines? How many facilitators do you need per group member? 

By the end of the first quarter, we'll have drafted a playbook and training plan. 

In the second quarter,  we'll test out the training plan and playbook with a small group of people from the community and refine based on what we learn.

We'll be working with folks in several geographies to deploy what we develop, so this is a great opportunity to see your work get broad dissemination.


  • 2 credits
  • Group meets Wednesdays 4-5:30 pm
  • Disclaimer: Photos and videos of the group may be taken
  • Open to undergraduates and graduates of any discipline

To apply: send a short statement of why you're interested and a description of (a) any technical background or (b) writing experience you have to Beth at

Beth Kolko's Directed Research Group archive: