Union professors embrace Maker Movement


By Carina Sorrentino

Professor of Spanish and Hispanic Studies Christine Henseler and Assistant Professor of Computer Science John Rieffel co-wrote an article that has been shared on Twitter over 127 times over winter break.

The article, entitled “The Maker Movement and the Humanities: Giving Students A Larger Toolbox” was published on Dec. 18 on The Huffington Post’s blog page.

Both Henseler and Rieffel have made the push for recognition and participation in the Maker Movement, which, simply put, is the diversifying of disciplines through interactions that promote “learning, doing, sharing and mentoring, playing, exploring and risk-taking.”

So what exactly brought a Spanish and a computer science professor together?

“I had been trying to get a Makerspace to Union in one form or another since I got here,” Rieffel remarked. “Because my own background is from a college like Union where there was a strong liberal arts and engineering presence, I have always been about interacting with people outside of the sciences and getting them involved.”

The two have been working collaboratively to encourage this intellectual cross-pollination, where students in the science and technology departments and those in the arts and humanities can learn with and from one another.

In general terms, a Makerspace would consist of a single room that contains all of the outlets for making, where people can go to hone their creative skills as well as think about what goes into such a process. “It would be ideal for one building in the middle of the campus to be dedicated to making,” Rieffel commented, “but we already have these Makerspaces scattered throughout the campus. My 3D printing lab, the electric engineering lab, the sculpture studio, the theater tech lab and the digital print-making studios are all separate components of a Makerspace.”

Rieffel went on to explain how there could be students in the Computer Science Department who need to build a smart fabric to add to a project, but who do not know how to sew. What they also may not know is that there are beautiful sewing machines on campus that other students know how to operate who could teach them how to do this. The Maker Movement is about making it possible for these worlds to collide and allow students the opportunity to grow while helping one another.

“I think that’s where the arts and humanities can materialize in this context,” Henseler stated, “because it is hard to talk about what we do and think. These Makerspaces can help people think in more material and tangible terms. It comes down to recognizing what we are doing, reflecting on these things, writing well and articulating our processes.” Henseler also pointed out that Union is one of the only institutions in the nation that is actively emphasizing the arts and humanities, making it an ideal environment for the movement to thrive.

Currently, many of those pushing the Maker Movement forward are interested in seeing how individuals involved in the arts and humanities can add richness to those who are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. However, what Henseler and Rieffel want to see is both disciplines lending to one another equally. “One is not better than the other,” Henseler remarked. “It has to be a two-way street.”

Rieffel stated, “There is this certain hubris among STEM fields that they think they have hit upon something novel when talking about Makerspaces, but when we cross the quad and go to the Visual Arts building they are already employing the techniques that are at the core of this. It is very near-sighted to suggest that science and engineering are onto something new. What we are really doing is appropriating these techniques that have been indicative to the arts for centuries.”

“Realizing that the arts and humanities have a lot to teach us is important.  It is not a question of how Makerspace can improve the humanities and how the humanities can benefit from STEM education … Makerspaces intend to have a foot in both worlds.”

And how do the professors see this working in the Union community?

“Our grand idea is to create something to unify all of these spaces,” Rieffel stated, “so potentially you would enroll in a class on Nexus where you would be trained to use multiple spaces on campus. This would help to make the membranes between departments more porous.”

Henseler added, “Then maybe through a website or phone app you could see what spaces are available at certain times. There would be opportunities for mentoring, lectures or courses that are related to the spaces. For instance, if you listened to a lecture on the history and design of a Gothic cathedral, you could then go reproduce a piece of stained glass stylistically based on what you had learned.”

“The more ideal aspect is that it won’t be run by faculty, but students,” Rieffel followed. “In many ways there are no faculty members who are experts on 3D printing here, but there are first-years coming in who are becoming quite great at it. We want to leverage that enthusiasm and skill to encourage peer mentoring … You learn a lot by teaching and this would create a positive snowball effect.”

“The Makerspaces are putting people on equal ground,” Henseler commented. “Many faculty members don’t know how to use particular technologies or machines, and so everyone here is on a level playing field. This gives the students the opportunity to work in a very organic environment, where we can have informative discussions on what we want to create and why.”

When speaking to his favorite aspect of the Wold Center, Rieffel remarked that all of the labs could be removed, but as long as the Starbucks line remained intact, there would still be great interdisciplinary research happening while students waited for their coffee together. Comparing it to a watering hole in the Sahara, Rieffel stated that it is this type of area where people are concentrated that there is an opportunity for the free exchange of ideas.

Henseler and Rieffel both spoke to the fact that in many images of Makerspaces, the students participating are white males. “One of the criticisms of the Maker Movement is that there is not much gender, race and class diversity,” Henseler remarked, “but we want to make this ‘Maker Community,’ as we call it, more approachable for everyone, all around.”

Both Henseler and Rieffel have set the stage for a deeper way of bringing Union students together in a way that is enriching for all parties. “Having these spaces where ideas and projects could collide would benefit the whole college,” Rieffel concluded.

Union was given its name for exactly this purpose: Its objective is to unify fields that can accomplish incredible things when they are brought together in the name of education and creation, which is precisely what Henseler and Rieffel hope to see.


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