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Exploring ideas, discovering STEM at Mount Holyoke College workshop

  • Students in the Makerspace learn to solder and wire LED lights as part of their self-directed projects.  Gazette Staff/Sarah Robertson

  • The Mount Holyoke Makerspace opened in September 2015 to students and faculty free of charge for academic and personal use. —Gazette Staff/Sarah Robertson

  • Keily Quinn, a 19-year-old freshman at Mount Holyoke, wires a circuit board with LED lights for her final project for the iDesign course. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Saneeque Dogar, 21, a junior studying international relations, is making a collar wired with LED lights and a noise-making motion sensor for her half-blind and half-deaf cat. “I have some really good friends who are computer science majors who recommended this class,” she said, “It’s always wait-listed for some reason.” GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • At the soldering station, Anushree Bhatia, 21, works alongside classmate Keily Quinn, 19, to finish their final projects for the iDesign course. —Gazette Staff/Sarah Robertson

  • Anushree Bhatia, a 21-year-old psychology major, wires LED lights into a set of traditional Indian dancing bells. “I do a lot of Indian classical dancing, and people are starting to lose interest, so I figured adding lights would help make little kids more interested in it,” she said. —Gazette Staff/Sarah Robertson

  • At the soldering station, Anushree Bhatia, 21, works alongside classmate Keily Quinn, 19, to finish their final projects for the iDesign course. —Gazette Staff/Sarah Robertson

  • The laser cutter can cut fine details into wood, paper, plastic and other materials in seconds, and is a popular tool among Mount Holyoke students.  GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON

  • Shani Mensing, 25, works as coordinator and technical specialist of the Mount Holyoke Makerspace, and is a 2015 graduate of the college. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH ROBERTSON



Staff Writer
Monday, December 04, 2017

SOUTH HADLEY — The room inside the Art Building on the Mount Holyoke College campus is, quite simply, a place to make things — to get the creative technological juices flowing with students and professors across a host of different disciplines.

For leaders and users of the college’s fledgling Makerspace, the two-year-old open classroom workshop is working wonders at giving students a place to create, invent and learn, particularly in the STEM disciplines of science, technology, engineering and math.

“The space overall includes collaborative areas that just bring people together in a non-academic setting,” said Makerspace faculty coordinator Katherine Aidala. “It’s not affiliated with a department.”

These “collaborative areas” include some pretty cool pieces of equipment, including a laser cutter, soldering station, sewing machines, a vacuum former, two 3-D printers, vinyl cutter and workbench devoted exclusively to different adhesives.

“It’s really interesting to see what people will create given the resources,” said Shani Mensing, a 2015 graduate of Mount Holyoke College who now serves as Makerspace coordinator and technical specialist.

Science, engineering boost

Under the guiding principles of inclusivity and accessibility, the space aims to help underrepresented groups break into the white male-dominated tech industry. It does this by providing a place for creative exploration without the barriers to entry present in other fields of technology.

Women make up 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce, despite representing half of the total U.S. college educated workforce, according to statistics from the National Science Board.

To combat this trend, Mount Holyoke works to promote tech literacy and dispel myths that women are less inclined to study science and engineering.

“There is so often a phobia of technology,” Aidala said. “You hear people all the time saying I’m not a math person, I’m not a science person, I’m not a tech person, I don’t do that. That’s exactly, exactly the kind of attitude we want to combat.”

Mount Holyoke graduates more female computer science and physics students than colleges 10 times its size, according to a report released by the college. They do this by providing role models who will introduce material in an engaging way, and actively push back against stereotypes that women are less inclined to pursue fields of science and math.

That’s where the Makerspace comes in.

The college spent $85,000 to transform the former Digital Media Lab into the current Makerspace with the help of a Massachusetts Life Sciences grant and an anonymous donor. Over the summer, some of that money went toward a free community college course that had students using the space.

“That’s one of goals. To bring people who perhaps never would think about coming through this door, to come through this door,” Aidala said.

The Makerspace hosts two to three workshops per semester on things like robotics, wearable technology, laser cutting, 3-D printing and much more. One of the most popular is a Halloween costume-making workshop that teaches students to laser cut custom leather masks and sew their own costumes. Anyone on campus can design and teach their own workshops.

Aidala knows at least 400 students used the Makerspace in its first two years of operation, and many more since. The workshop recently instituted a swipe card system to collect data on who uses the Makerspace and how often to better track and assess student needs.

“We’re going to want to know whether the resource itself is important and whether we’re successfully building this, somewhat, entrepreneurial culture,” Aidala said. “This creating something from nothing, hands-on, approach to problem-solving.”

Collecting sample data from students in the space, the college determined that students from an increasingly wide variety of majors are using the Makerspace. In the first year of operation, 22 percent of the students surveyed were computer science majors, compared to 14 percent in the second year.

Laser cutter showpiece

Mensing says the laser cutter is somewhat of a showpiece because it can be used on a wide variety of materials.

“We walk you through how to use the laser cutter,” said Mensing. “So it’s never unattended, it’s heavily staffed enough so that you can walk in and use it without needing that background.”

While she was a student at Mount Holyoke College in 2013, Mensing helped craft the curriculum for the iDesign course that for many students serves as an introduction to the Makerspace. Peter Klemperer has taught the course for three years, teaching students to pitch ideas, conceptualize, design and build their projects under his guidance.

“What really made a difference here is the way that this program is focused on non-majors,” Klemperer said.

Klemperer says the Makerspace is a place for collaboration, and the effects can be felt across campus.

“I think it has facilitated a lot of interactions between departments and students from different majors,” Klemperer said.

One such interaction involves senior Kat Aiello and freshman Maya Reinstein, both of whom are enrolled in the iDesign course this semester. Aiello is a computer science major comfortable with software but wanted more experience working with computer hardware. She worked alongside Reinstein, who enjoys sewing and was making a quilt wired with LED lights for her final project.

“This class was a good way to combine things I already enjoyed doing with things I’ve never tried before,” Aiello said.

Creative relationships

With approximately 2,200 students and 200 faculty members, the small campus allows for efficient communication and these kind of close creative relationships.

“Because we’re small, we don’t have those isolated silos of different disciplines that don’t talk to each other,” Aidala said. “It’s easy for me to reach out to someone who might have expertise because the more that we talk about this and the more people know what’s going on around campus, the more conversations I get into.”

The Makerspace encourages professors to have students visit and explore the many ways technology can be applied to education. An American foreign policy class used the space to build and test small drones, then wrote and reflected on ethical questions surrounding their use in warfare and humanitarian aid.

Klemperer says students find comfort in the participation-based class that grades students by their progress, not by their product. The encouragement instills confidence in students that has positive effects far beyond the workshop. He has even seen students uninterested in coding take the iDesign course, then change their majors to a computer science related field.

“When you are seeing things you thought you couldn’t do, then successfully do those things, the confidence you gain, it spills over in a lot of ways,” he said.

Aidala hopes that a proposal passes to renovate an 8,000 square foot space in Prospect Residence Hall to build a metalworking and a woodshop. If all goes well, the space should open in spring of 2019 and provide students with more tools to create.

“We are really looking forward to the new equipment and expanding those resources that we currently have on campus that maybe are not available otherwise to a lot of students,” Mensing said. “Because now we have this equipment and the expertise that we are able to give to students.”

Ten students work in the lab, co-staffed by Makerspace and Digital Media Lab employees in addition to dozens of volunteers. In their ongoing effort to be accessible, students are allowed to volunteer their time in exchange for materials. The Makerspace makes no profit, charging nothing to use equipment and selling materials like fabric and wood at wholesale price, Mensing said.

“We do have a lot of students coming into the space especially because it is brand new,” Mensing said. “It’s actually been really surprising how quickly the Makerspace has grown.”

The space is open to Five College students, all Mount Holyoke students, faculty and staff, but administrators are still deciding whether the space will be accessible to the public. They recently received the first request from a community member to use the 3-D printer and are trying to decide on a policy.

“Our priorities are education of the Mount Holyoke community, and experiences from other places has been that there’s not much space other than that,” said Aidala.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com