Makerspaces receive coordinator, grant funding

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Union announced Oct. 2 that it had received a three-year $800,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation “to promote the integration of the arts and humanities across academic disciplines,” hiring Amanda Ervin later that week to fill the newly created two-year role of Makerspace Coordinator.

Though Ervin’s salary will not come out of the grant money, one of the projects that the grant supports, according to Union, is the “creation of a humanities maker community,” which includes the creation of a Humanities Maker Faire and the incorporation of maker labs, “using portable makerspaces,” into regular coursework.

These are all goals Ervin will be instrumental in supporting, as she now oversees the Collaborative Design Studio, also dubbed the 3D printing lab, and its MakerCorps, the group of students who help tend to and operate the studio’s many 3D printers, including the college’s six Makerbots, all of which are elements of the MakerWeb Consortium.

Ervin will also support all other elements of the MakerWeb Consortium, which includes “managing budget and workflow and developing and delivering maker programming,” according to Denise Snyder, ITS Director of Learning Technologies and Environments, who will supervise Ervin.

Associate Professor of Computer Science John Rieffel, who previously oversaw the Collaborative Design Studio, will continue to be involved in the studio and the MakerCorps “in a supervisory capacity, and will be the faculty advisor for any research practicum students,” he said in an email.

Rieffel emphasized that the creation of the Makerspace Coordinator position and the subsequent shift of control of the 3D printing lab to the Learning Environments Department of ITS occurred independently of the Mellon Foundation grant, “and was in motion well before we heard about the Mellon Grant funding.”

Ervin will, however, be interacting with the funding from the grant. She said that she was recently nominated for a subcommittee that seeks to determine “how to best integrate maker initiatives in the classroom,” which is part of the Mellon Foundation grant and is external to the MakerWeb Consortium. She stated that her budget for the MakerWeb is also funded through the Mellon Foundation grant.

Rieffel, who worked on acquiring the grant, “especially the Humanities Maker Community portion,” said he is “thrilled” that Union was selected for the Mellon Foundation grant, and gave Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies Christine Henseler, Chair of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, “the lion’s share of the credit for developing the grant.”

Henseler confirmed that she was the “Principal Investigator” of the planning grant, meaning that she “directed and wrote the planning grant that ultimately led to the Mellon received by Union.”

Rieffel stated that Ervin will be “deeply involved” in utilizing the “many mechanisms” to “weave together the various existing makerspaces across campus” that the college has at its disposal as a result of the Mellon Foundation grant.

Ervin said her main task, as of now, is “talking to people all over campus — faculty, student groups, all these things — looking at the kind of initiatives that are already in place, that I would consider maker kinds of activities, and figuring out how to support them better.”

She is also “looking at where that’s lacking, so what kinds of equipment maybe we can get in, what kinds of ideas and concepts we can introduce into classes and curriculum to create this sort of interdisciplinary bridge between the humanities and technology — but not just the humanities and technology. Also maybe the humanities and some other humanities, or some technologies and some other technologies.”

Ervin hopes to use the already-existing MakerWeb Nexus page to create “a library of resources” for students interested in maker technologies to access information on those technologies.

She envisions this library including “tutorials about how to use the 3D printers,” and, ideally, projects that teach students how to use technologies while attempting to achieve a much larger goal, such as building “an environmentally friendly battery that works with cell phone chargers” that would list tools they could use to build their project and give instructions on how to build it.

Ervin said she has several other big ideas in mind for Union’s makerspaces, including educating students about ways maker culture impacts larger industries, like the fashion industry, for example.

Though maker culture (and its resulting makerspaces) can be difficult to define, Rieffel and Ervin both summed it up concisely as a cultural phenomenon of physically creating whatever ideas people have floating around in their heads, which results from access to tools and technologies that were previously only available to academics and employees of large companies with a wealth of resources.

Ervin emphasized that she wants to see maker culture “integrated into classroom activities,” and catch on in the students and the faculty, generating “tremendous enthusiasm” and finding “that sweet spot where” disciplines overlap “and brilliant things come out of it.”

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