A home for 21st-century artisans

In the College's makerspace, Tracy Keya ’18 (right), works on her iDesign Studio project, an electronic chameleon that changes color, with her professor, Janet Slocum, visiting lecturer in computer science.

By Sasha Nyary 

It’s a Tuesday afternoon late in the semester and a dozen students are in the makerspace at Mount Holyoke College. They are working intently on their final projects for their iDesign studio class, offered by the computer science department. They fiddle with circuit boards, maneuver wires the thickness of thread at the soldering station, and ponder code on computer screens. 

Caledonia Wilson ’19, a math major, is building a nightlight using a stainless steel bowl and a machine called a vacuum former. She’ll use another machine, called a laser cutter, to cut shapes out of a wooden disk. She’ll attach the vacuum-formed plastic above that disk to hide the electronics. Then she’ll add lights and decorate it. 

Joy Maran ’19, an international relations and economics double major with a Nexus concentration in global business, is at a table laying out her project, which she calls Lit Lines. Maran likes to play tennis and volleyball—she’s a star athlete—but line balls are frustrating. Was the ball in or was it out? So she’s inventing a strip that sets off lights and a buzzer when something hits it. Three pressure sensors the exact width of a tennis court line will be connected by soldered wires to a SquareWear device that’s connected to a neopixel strip. 

Over at the soldering station, Nicole De Araujo ’18, a double major in architecture and Italian, is soldering a wave shield that will eventually play music. She’s building a nightlight that turns itself on when the lights are turned off, plays a lullaby, and displays a light show. The device turns off when the lights go back on. 

These students are all using Mount Holyoke’s makerspace, a large open classroom in the Art Building that’s outfitted with equipment including the aforementioned vacuum former and laser cutter, two 3-D printers, sewing machines, and soldering tools. A closetful of boxes contain various supplies: electric paint, lithium batteries, conductive fabric, SquareWear, resistors, LEDs, copper tape. 

The makerspace revolution 

The terms “makerspace” and “maker culture” took off in the early 2000s, according to physics professor Katherine Aidala. 

“People have always been making and creating,” Aidala said. “We’ve always had artisans. What’s different now is the technology available and the price of that technology. We now have cheaper rapid-prototyping tools. If you can design something using computer software and then give the instructions to these machines, then you can have relatively little knowledge about the physical construction and still make really awesome things.” 

To that end, colleges and universities are opening makerspaces. But most of these, Aidala noted, originate within engineering departments or sometimes art departments. While Aidala, who chairs the engineering committee, is the faculty lead, the Mount Holyoke College Makerspace is used by far more than STEM students. 

Two primary goals 

A little over a year old, the facility is intended for use by everyone on campus, across disciplines, including faculty and staff. In addition to the computer science and physics departments, it is currently used most heavily by the architectural studies program and the art studio and theatre arts departments. 

Such broad use reflects the two goals of the makerspace: to increase technical literacy and to help liberal arts students find pathways into careers in engineering, Aidala said. 

“Part of finding that pathway is discovering that you like it,” she said. “We have a unique opportunity—within a women’s college, with our student body—to reach students who were not thinking about a STEM major and bring them in, helping them realize that this knowledge, this possible career path is relevant to them.” 

The College’s makerspace grew in part out of the spectacular success of the iDesign Studio course, which began three years ago as a first-year seminar. Eva Snyder ’17, a music and computer science double major, was in the original class of 14 students, none of whom were computer science majors. But by the end of the semester four were, including Snyder, who had never coded before. 

“I thought computer science was sitting in front of a computer and programming all day long, which is not what I was interested in,” Snyder said. “I was interested in more of the creative side of things. I’m a musician and a writer. But then I learned that computer science can be creative and new and innovative and exciting.” 

Snyder is a teaching assistant in the class, which now meets in the makerspace, is open to all undergraduates, and always has a waiting list. In August, just before she started her senior year, Snyder accepted a position with Google to work as a software engineer for its YouTube unit after she graduates. 

The makerspace is for everyone

Other classes drop in on the makerspace to enhance their curriculum. Students in Dean of Faculty Jon Western’s American Foreign Policy class used it to study the technology of drones and remote sensing. Naomi Darling, Five College Assistant Professor of Sustainable Architecture, brought her environmental design students to the makerspace to build models. Students in the Future of Jobs class learned about robots from Audrey St. John, a computer science associate professor. Several theatre arts classes and productions use the equipment to create models of sets and costumes featuring wearable technology. 

Michelle Oraa Ali ’17 invented MuSyC: Music-Synesthesia-Color as an independent project with support she received from the makerspace and Five College Digital Humanities. The machine takes audio input and converts it into visual feedback in real time and has won numerous awards. 

Student groups and organizations also use the space, said Shani Mensing ’15, who is the makerspace coordinator and helped create it. Students in middle school, high school, and community college take iDesign Studio in the summer. 

“We have lots of ways of introducing the community into the space,” said Mensing, noting that the makerspace is staffed and the independent use of the equipment is restricted until the user has been sufficiently trained. 

She and her staff offer workshops, typically oversubscribed, which are geared toward getting people familiar with the tools. She assumes all those new to the makerspace have no background. 

“We offer a comfortable, non-intimidating space where people know they’re not required or expected to know any of this,” Mensing said. 

In the chocolate lab, participants vacuum-form plastic to create chocolate molds. Others learn to use the laser cutter, the 3-D printers, and Adobe Illustrator. The workshop on wearable technology is typically followed by one on creating Halloween costumes. 

Whether it’s connecting artists with computer scientists, or entrepreneurs with science majors, the makerspace team wants to be a hub where people spark interdisciplinary collaboration, Aidala said. 

“We live in a mechanical world,” Aidala said. “When you realize that these machines aren’t as scary as they might seem, that coding isn’t as hard as you might think it is, you realize that you are not out of place. That you belong here.” 

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