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Making is Learning

Welcome to the Mount Makerspace, where students are encouraged to design, experiment, build and invent.

September 11, 2019

By Phillip Jordan

Students collaborating at the Mount Makerspace
Students collaborating at the Mount Makerspace

The next time you visit the second floor of Coe Memorial Library, don’t expect to see any “quiet” signs. This is not your traditional library space. No shushing allowed. Instead, expect to hear a 3D printer churning out new, student-designed prototypes. The rhythmic whirring of woodworking tools. Students discussing their DIY zines featuring poetry, art and design.

Welcome to the Mount Saint Mary’s Makerspace.

Funded by a $350,000 grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation and filled with state-of-the-art equipment, the space is designed to encourage hands-on experimentation and independent learning. The Mount Makerspace will also enable University faculty to add to a woefully thin body of research on how best to engage women and underserved populations in these kinds of innovative spaces.

“Women and people of color are vastly underrepresented in community and professional makerspaces,” says Kim Middleton, PhD, former director of Mount Saint Mary’s Center for Academic Innovation and Creativity. “For our students, this is an opportunity to become comfortable and capable in these kinds of spaces. They’ll be better prepared to play prominent roles in innovative new fields and as entrepreneurs. And they’ll be learning skills they can take out into the world.”

Makerspace, Mount-style

In typical Mount fashion, there are also a couple of twists from the standard makerspace found on many college campuses: First, this is a space run for, and by, Mount students. Media Services student workers are trained on all equipment, so they can help guide other students doing independent maker projects.

Second: At the Mount, students and classes from all areas of study can come and create, from psychology students coming up with new ways to connect with patients to computer science students tinkering with new approaches to robotics.

“When you see these kinds of spaces in most academic settings, they’re usually based within a specific department, like engineering, or a STEM discipline or art,” says Michele Starkey, EdD, associate provost. “The Mount Makerspace is truly multidisciplinary. We’re also embedding Makerspace thinking in our general curriculum, further enriching our liberal arts approach. It’s all about critical thinking and creative problem-solving.”

That holistic approach is a proven one. A recent report, “Makerspaces: Highlights of Select Literature,” noted: “Ultimately, the interdisciplinary and empowering nature of these makerspaces can help prepare youth for a future we can’t yet imagine.”

That’s exactly what Sylvine Deprele, PhD, sees, too. The associate professor of physical sciences says the borderless nature of the Mount Makerspace means options are limitless when it comes to projects and collaborations. And that, she says, will broaden students’ horizons beyond any one particular perspective — a trait that’s increasingly crucial to success in a rapidly evolving workforce.

“Doing is learning,” says Deprele. “Maker projects demand a higher level of investment from students because they need to create something with their own hands. That motivates and pushes them to accomplish great things. There’s really a sense of ownership and pride among students. They get to incorporate their own creativity and interests. And the process challenges them to be more independent and resourceful while still nurturing teamwork.” 

Making in action

Deprele is one of several professors from different disciplines who started injecting maker logic and maker projects into their classes long before the Mount’s new Makerspace opened. Those projects have included: using a 3D printer to create scale models of art pieces; making light-up greeting cards using student-made electrical circuits; generating 3D prototypes in chemistry; transmitting student-created podcasts; creating and testing the design of ceramic-made water filters; and MakerNurse projects.

Aliyah Hughes ’19 was one of the students involved in the spring 2019 MakerNurse project, which challenged nursing students to come up with creative solutions to common problems faced by hospital care teams. Her team researched issues around patient and nurse safety when it comes to repositioning patients in bed.

Hughes and her teammates came up with a new design for moving patients. They called it an Air Mover — an inflatable, remote-controlled mattress and assisted device that can automatically move patients every two hours and can vary the mattress pressure from firm to soft as needed.

Other MakerNurse teams came up with new ways to address other hospital issues, such as a new type of glucose testing strip that would be less likely to malfunction or introduce infection; a PeekABaby monitor for families to be able to stay connected to babies that have to be taken to a neonatal intensive care unit; an improved tele-light call system that aids in signaling staff to patient rooms; and an art-and-music immersion experience that could help patients relax before or after an operation.

“It was such an incredible and fun opportunity,” Hughes says. “We had to take into account real-world, practical issues that the hospital shared with us and then we applied creative thinking to find a solution. [Maker projects] are a new way to explore your passions and let your intellectual curiosity be stimulated.”

Now that the Mount Makerspace is open for business, these kinds of projects have even greater support on campus. Students have more freedom to experiment, and professors have better resources to extend work beyond the classroom or the traditional lab.

“Having a physical space on campus now is so important to keep nurturing the creativity that sprouts in class,” Deprele says. “Students can work at their own pace outside the typical classroom environment and be exposed to other creative ideas and possibilities being explored in the space. Here, it’s our students who will really own the Makerspace.”

Design Mockup at Makerspace
Design Mockup at Makerspace

What is a makerspace?

Makerspaces provide hands-on, creative ways to encourage students to design, experiment, build and invent. They are also sometimes called hackerspaces or fablabs.

Among the maker tools that will be available in the Mount Makerspace:

3D printer
Art supplies
Digital sewing machines
DIY zine and book arts corner
Electrical and mechanical instruments
Hand tools for soldering
Laser cutter
Letter press
Vinyl cutter
Woodworking tools