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Skylar Tibbits, Young Tech Whiz, Inspires Dallas Students With 'Self-Assembly' And 4-D Printing

Bill Zeeble
Skylar Tibbits stopped by the KERA studios before heading to the Frontiers of Flight Museum at Dallas Love Field. There, he talked to and inspired college STEM students in the Dallas County Community College District.

Tech whiz Skylar Tibbits is an artist, architect and professor at MIT with his own lab. And he just turned 29.

Tibbits has grabbed global interest with his research into “self-assembly.” That’s where man-made objects build themselves. This stuff is catnip for college STEM students -- and Tibbits was in Dallas recently to talk with some of them.

Tibbits happily talks science, engineering, technology and math to students in the Dallas County Community College District, knowing his story might inspire them. He got two master's degrees in two years at MIT -- and then he got hired full-time. 

“Again, you’re like, ‘what?” Tibbits tells the STEM students. “Why?’ Just go with it.”

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Skylar Tibbits talked to Dallas County Community College STEM students, some of whom are older than the 29 year-old MIT whiz. The professor, who has his own research lab, talked about 3-D and 4-D printing, and his revolutionary exploration into 'self assembly.'

Pursue what you love, he says, like he did. And keep pushing. "Fake it 'til you make it," he joked with the auditorium of students.

From 3-D to 4-D

He’s still amazed he’s not only teaching them and professors, but runs his own lab at MIT and helps teach a class called "How To Make (Almost) Anything." He’s trying to revolutionize 3-D printers, which are themselves revolutionary. His4-D process -- the fourthdimension is time -- spits out flat sheets that can change shape and form objects just by contacting passive energy, like light or water. Theyself-assemble.

“In some ways what we’re doing is nothing new,” Tibbits said. “Biology has been doing this forever. Our real novelty is scale and application. That’s when I realized 'Whoa, this is something new in construction/manufacturing.'”

Biology has been at this forever. People self-assemble, like every living thing. Tibbits thought objects could too, with complex bends and folds, precise twists and turns. Take the arm's-length strand he printed that, submerged in water, formed the letters "MIT." It was a small but impressive step. If you still don’t get it, Tibbits says, think of a standard old thermostat.

“Most of them will have this coil in the back,” Tibbits explains. “And this coil is just two metals sandwiched together and when the temperature goes up, the dial turns to the right and when the temperature goes down it turns to the left. So there’s no motors, no sensors, no electronics. It’s just that the material property itself and the combination with another material allows it to expand or contract.”

Tibbits can layer different materials on 3-D sheets that can bend left, right, up down, sideways, into cubes, cones, kind of like the thermostat’s metal strips. He says the process is still new, but practical applications could eventually lead to girders that flex when the earth quakes, and stiffen when it’s stable. Or pipes that shrink, and then expand, depending on water flow.

Students are impressed

He says businesses are interested. So are students like Mountain View College’s April Foster, who's studying nano-technology.

“Self-assembly -- everything is coming together in its lowest energy state," Foster said. "It’s mind-blowing and fascinating. Especially on a larger scale instead of a biological scale. This man, I could sit and probably listen to him all day.”

Tibbits impresses Brookhaven computer science student Omar Roa, who wants to make computing easier for people like his mother.  

“Because there’s definitely a gap there," Roa said. "I can try and teach my mom how to use a computer all day and she won’t know. She still won’t remember. My passion is to get that gap or there’s just going to be a divide there.”

And there’s another important message from Tibbits.

“He said I don’t care if I’m rich or poor,” Roa says. “This is what I want to do. That is what I want to do. I want to help people use technology. And so if that’s what I’m going to pursue, opportunities may follow; they maybe not.”

But at least, Roa says, he’ll be doing what he wants to do.

Learn more about Tibbits

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.