Maker spaces boost student tech innovation

Colleges and universities are making room for students to be inventive and entrepreneurial.

Where do college students go to tinker, build and test prototypes, and find commercial support for their ideas? Maker spaces.

Also known as entrepreneur labs or innovation centers, these studio spaces are cropping up at colleges and universities across the country. They’re outfitted with gear for designing, prototyping, testing and fabricating new products. There are 3D printers and laser cutters, workstations and whiteboards, meeting rooms and lounge areas. The idea is to create an environment that fosters creativity and collaboration through hands-on, project-based learning.

"It's a really large, open, physics lab-feeling environment,” says architect Leila Kamal, vice president of design & expertise at EYP Architecture & Engineering. "Maker space is designed for students to have a sandbox environment where they can create. It's a very entrepreneurial idea."

While rooted in design and engineering, today’s maker spaces aren't only for STEM students. They’re for the university community at large, says Mark Thaler, senior associate and education practice leader at global design firm Gensler.

Maker spaces have staff members on hand to connect users to the resources they need. Students can reserve spaces and equipment, and they can find people – inside and outside the university community – who might be able to help with a project. It’s a chance for students “to formulate ideas, to fabricate ideas, to test and prototype and, ultimately, to meet with individuals outside of the university setting that could help them realize implementations of these ideas," Thaler says.

Students have been influenced by companies like Apple and Google that grew from modest, garage-maker origins to commercial success, Thaler says. “Obviously not everybody can drop out of school and form a multibillion dollar company. Isn't it great if universities can offer students the opportunity to do that type of inquiry and exploration in a safe place, while they're in school?"

It’s a way to recruit fresh talent and retain inventive students. Schools are building maker spaces and incubator labs “to remain competitive and remain relevant and to keep students who have this increasingly entrepreneurial bent on campus," Thaler says.

Maker spaces also can help colleges and universities forge relationships with businesses. The settings feel like professional workshops and encourage the kinds of behaviors and critical thinking that the commercial world values, Thaler says. "They can start to create alliances with the workforce, and help universities to bridge the gap between school and industry.”

Gensler recently completed a maker space at New York University, named The Mark and Debra Leslie Entrepreneurs Lab (photo at top). The 5,900-square-foot space includes co-working spaces, meeting rooms, an event space, and a fabrication lab.

"Students from any walk of life can come there and see what entrepreneurship at NYU is all about,” Thaler says. “They can meet like-minded people, and they don't necessarily have to be in the same discipline at all. That's actually a hallmark of it. It's totally multidisciplinary."

trinity univ maker space eyp tim griffith.jpg Tim Griffith

At Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, the newly built Center for the Sciences & Innovation (designed by EYP) includes an open-air innovation lab with rolling workstations that combine tables, whiteboards, and tech resources (photo above). The workshop space is open to all students, and the layout is flexible to handle different groups’ needs.

"It's designed around this concept of think-model-make," Kamal says. "It's hands-on learning."

Other maker spaces can be found on dozens of campuses around the country. Here are a few examples:

University of Utah

Part residence hall, part lab space, Lassonde Studios at the University of Utah takes maker space to a whole new live-work level (photo below).

univ utah lassonde studios

The 148,000-square-foot building will combine 412 residences for student entrepreneurs with a 20,000-square-foot “garage” space where students from any major can connect, test ideas, build prototypes and work to launch companies.

Lassonde Studios is under construction and expected to open in late 2016. It will be managed by Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, a division of the university’s business school.

Wheaton College, Norton, Mass.

The WHALE Lab (Wheaton Autonomous Learning Lab) at Wheaton College has spaces and gear – including a 3D printer, laser cutter, mobile robot platforms, conductive thread and an embroidery machine – for students and faculty to work on projects. “Think of the space as a combination of great stuff from mechanics, tailors, roboticists, designers, and artists,” the lab says of its equipment.

Columbia University, New York, NY

The Columbia Maker Space is housed at the university’s engineering school but open to all Columbia undergraduates. Equipment includes 3D printers, laser cutter, drill press, sewing machines, woodworking tools and soldering gear.

Davidson College, Davidson, NC

The IT services group at Davidson College runs Studio M, a maker space and innovation lab that’s open to the entire college community. Resources include Arduino boards, Raspberry Pi, Ninja Blocks, workstations for coding, 3D scanners and printers, LEGO bricks and quadcopter drones that can carry aerial imaging tools.

Georgia Tech, Atlanta

The Invention Studio at Georgia Tech is student-run “design-build-play space” that’s open and free for all students, faculty and staff of Georgia Tech. The studio was started in 2009 for a small group of students and has grown over the years to become what Georgia Tech says is one of the largest design/build university spaces in the U.S. and the only one run entirely by volunteer undergraduates. “To promote and reward creativity, there are few strict rules in the Invention Studio. Rather, we promote an ethic of responsibility, safety, and community ownership. In this way, students can explore and develop unconventional ideas in a supporting environment,” the studio says.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The newly completed Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) building at Illinois includes the Open Projects Lab, where students can work on non-classroom projects.

University of Massachusetts, Lowell

Construction is underway to transform a former campus bookstore into hands-on lab space with 3D printers and workstations for electronics and machining at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell.

Purdue University, West Lafayette, Ind.

The Artisan and Fabrication Lab at Purdue has been open since 2009, but it was originally used by engineering students for hands-on coursework projects. In 2013, the university opened the lab to all faculty, staff and students who want to work on academic projects, entrepreneurial projects, personal projects, and research projects. AFL consists of five spaces: an artisan lab for working with woods and plastics; fabrication lab for working with metals; unclean room for painting and glue tasks; demonstration studio for developing and simulating CAD/CAM programs; and prototyping studio with three rapid prototyping machines.

Duke University, Durham, NC

The Innovation Studio is the digital modeling and fabrication component of Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab. The studio is outfitted with 3D printers, a CNC router, laser cutter, and electronics including Arduinos, Raspberry Pis, sensors and accessories. “Over the first few years of the Co-Lab, we've provided great resources and support for software projects, but we've left the hardware projects behind. We've never really had a home base for the tools, equipment, and support needed for this kind of project work -- until now,” the studio says.

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

UNC’s Makerspace falls under the domain of the university libraries. Created by the Kenan Science Library, the lab is open to students, faculty, and staff.

This story, "Maker spaces boost student tech innovation" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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