Last Friday, October 7, a crowd of students gathered in the cool shade of a large tent between Schaffer Library and the Nott Memorial in preparation for an exhibition on the maker culture here at Union.
The exhibition, called MakerFest, lasted from 10:00 a.m. until 6 p.m. and featured student projects, a couple of 3-D printers, a demonstration of the Maker Corps’ 3-D scanner and even a local resident who makes whimsical wearable technology.
The event was the first of its kind here at Union, and was the result of a two-year effort by Amanda Ervin, Union’s Makerspace Coordinator, to promote Union’s MakerWeb and encourage the development of maker culture at the college.
Maker culture, the central theme behind the MakerFest, is the intersection of a DIY (do it yourself) attitude with modern technological advances. In particular, increasingly cheap and powerful micro-electronics (like the Arduino or Raspberry Pi) and automated fabrication systems (like MakerBot 3-D printers), along with easy-to-use programming languages like Python, have made it possible for just about anyone to create interesting new contraptions.
Makers, as members of the maker community call themselves, enjoy mixing and matching these technologies in new and interesting ways, and then sharing their creations with other makers and the general public.
Events like the MakerFest are a celebration of maker culture and, as such, provide opportunities for makers to meet each other, show off what they’ve created, learn new techniques and develop new ideas. When makers exhibit their projects, it’s not just a chance for them to show off their projects, but an opportunity for other makers to appreciate and learn from the projects.
Ervin explained that one of the primary goals of the MakerFest was, “to showcase maker projects from all over campus, and to give makers from all corners of the campus a platform to get together and talk shop.”
Union’s first MakerFest featured both student and visitor exhibits, showcasing everything from the practical uses of 3-D printing to fun programming projects to the intersection of art and technology.
On the more practical side, Emmanuela Oppong ’19 showcased some of her 3-D printed skatefish intestines. Oppong used an X-ray machine to generate a virtual 3-D model of the skatefish, then manually removed layers from the model to reveal the spiral intestines of the skatefish.
Another practical project was Xavier Quinn’s ’20 3-D printed mechanical hand. The hand is entirely printed from plastic resin, and features small holes on the fingers to allow them to be manipulated using strings.
Other students focused on more amusing projects, like Virtual U’s interactive version of Conway’s Game of Life implemented in Python. The program took the Game of Life, an interesting mathematical “game” which changes the state of a board based on a set of rules, and allowed viewers to draw their own initial board state. Natalya Brill ’18 made “Stroll in Brighton,” a Russian language video game. The SAE Aero team mixed both amusement and practicality when, represented by Jacob Pessin ’19 and Blair Hagen ’19, it showed off their remote controlled model plane.
Union also invited guests Kat McDermott, Ryan Ross Smith and Shawn Lawson to the event, both so that they can show off their maker skills and to inspire more Union students to become a part of maker culture. McDermott is a local maker who exhibited her whimsical “social escape dress,” a dress which utilizes small air pumps and electronic cigarettes to produce a cloud of fog around the wearer; the goal being a smoke-bomb effect allowing the wearer to escape awkward social situations in a hurry. Smith gave workshops on animated music notation, a method of notating music not as a static line of notes but as a dynamic animation. Afterwards, Smith and Lawson performed live coding, a performance art where the artists write and change computer code in order to produce music on the fly.
These events are also meant to draw new people into maker culture by serving as demonstrations of how “making” works and the cool technologies which can be used as part of the making process. Makers hope that by showing how fun and interesting maker culture can be, more people will join in. At Union’s inaugural MakerFest, for example, the Maker Corps showed off two of their MakerBot Replicators, conveniently small 3-D printers available on the consumer market. Also on display was the Maker Corps’ 3-D scanner, which students could use to scan their face, or any other object, into a computer. These kind of technologies, which have only recently become feasible for consumers, allow individuals to produce all kinds of objects which used to require complex wood- or metal-shaping tools.
As the inaugural MakerFest here at Union, some parts were successful and some inevitably needed work. “Those who participated had lots of fun, and enjoyed it,” noted Ervin, continuing that, “People who aren’t normally working next to each other got to bump elbows with each other in a fun environment.” But, she acknowledged, some things still need work: “[In the future] I’d like to have even more elaborate projects, and projects from faculty… I’d like to see even more students and faculty participating next year.”
At Union, maker culture has been steadily growing and solidifying for the last few years. Only a few years ago maker culture at Union was a vague, amorphous thing. The Collaborative Design Studio (CDS), a small room on the ground floor of the Peter Irving Wold Center filled with 3-D printers, was the only dedicated maker location and was run by Associate Professor of Computer Science John Rieffel. A small group of students interested in maker culture helped out by overseeing the CDS, but lacked formal organization. Since then, Union created the Maker Corps, a formalized group of students who are not just interested in maker culture but, according to the blog of Union’s MakerWeb, “have strategically positioned themselves as the vanguard of manufacturing and design on the Union Campus.”
The creation of the MakerWeb was next. Prior to its development, locations for students and faculty interested in maker culture were disparate, connected and coordinated only informally. The MakerWeb changed that, tying together a number of spaces across campus by designating them as dedicated nodes in the MakerWeb and putting them under the jurisdiction of a single MakerWeb coordinator. Union brought Ervin on board as MakerWeb coordinator in the Fall of the 2015-2016 school year, and she promptly began expanding and strengthening the MakerWeb. Currently, there are three major nodes on campus: the CDS in Wold 026, the digital art studio in the newly renovated Feigenbaum Center for Visual Arts, and the Idea Lab in the basement of Schaffer.