On a Wednesday afternoon in April, students were scattered at workstations throughout a lab space in Borland Building, experimenting with 3D pens and 3D printers to make creations out of plastic. Other students were cutting shapes from cardboard, putting together models to later replicate with the 3D tools. They all had a simple goal: to “make.”
The station set-up was a pilot for a National Science Foundation-funded grant project that will develop and tour a mobile “makerspace” to locations throughout Pennsylvania. According to primary investigator Aaron Knochel, assistant professor of art education, research has shown that mobile makerspaces excite local communities about innovative technologies such as additive manufacturing (AM)—also known as 3D printing—but no studies have addressed whether those makerspaces sustain users’ initial “spectacle-driven fascination” and create a meaningful educational experience.
That’s about to change. In October 2016, Knochel and co-PIs Tom Lauerman, assistant professor of art, and Nicholas Meisel, assistant professor of engineering design and mechanical engineering, won a two-year, $299,780 NSF grant to design and build a makerspace to explore informal learning in STEAM—science, technology, engineering, art, and math—subjects. The makerspace will travel to several Penn State campuses and community events, such as the Pittsburgh Maker Faire and State College Maker Week.
The project, titled “Deployable Makerspace Classrooms: Mobility, Additive Manufacturing, and Curricular Spectacle,” is being funded with money earmarked for educational research projects in the early stage yet are “potentially transformative,” according to the NSF website.
Knochel said the primary goal is to engage diverse audiences in making. “We want to take advantage of the potential for highly visible expressions of curriculum, what we call ‘curricular spectacles,’ and mobility to gain access to a diverse range of learners in a diverse range of locations. Mobile making can engage the rural to the urban, the engineer to the artist, the hobbyist to the professional.”
The research team has conducted some early piloting of the mobile makerspace by engaging students in a new 200-level course called “Making for the Masses” (ART 297). Developed as a part of a Teaching and Learning with Technology (TLT) Fellows project, this inter-domain general education class introduces students from any major to the “making mindset,” providing a possible avenue to a variety of majors in the colleges of Arts and Architecture and Engineering. An outgrowth of several years of conversations and collaborations between faculty from Engineering and Arts and Architecture, Making for the Masses was developed with a total of six faculty. In addition to Knochel, Lauerman, and Meisel, the other TLT fellows for the course are Marcus Shaffer, associate professor of architecture; Matt Parkinson, associate professor and director of The Learning Factory in the College of Engineering; and Tim Simpson, Paul Morrow Professor of Engineering Design and Manufacturing and TLT’s 3D Printing Fellow in 2015–16.
While there is no formal connection between the course (tentatively scheduled to be offered again in spring 2018) and the NSF grant, the goals for both are clearly linked. On that April afternoon in Borland Building, the students in the course roamed among the stations, chatting with their friends and professors while “making”—they did not necessarily have a finished project in mind, but were simply exploring the process.
Throughout the spring semester, the Making for the Masses course met for a weekly lecture and weekly “lab,” in locations ranging from the ceramics studio to Stuckeman’s Digital Fabrication Lab (digiFAB) to the state-of-the-art 3D metal printing facility, CIMP-3D (cimp-3d.org), located at Innovation Park. The April lab session in Borland Building included a prototype for demonstrating and testing the NSF team’s mobile makerspace.
According to Simpson, a primary goal of the course was to expose non-art majors to labs and studios in the College of Arts and Architecture. While the course was open to undergraduates in any major, the majority were engineering students.
“The idea is making for anyone and everyone,” he said. “We were purposeful with the title, and also with where the lectures were held [Stuckeman Family Building]. If nothing else, students in the class will get into another building, and see what happens beyond their visual arts and engineering classrooms.”
Shaffer agreed, noting the instructors wanted to communicate that there is a strong community of makers already at work on the University Park campus. “Different disciplines have different making facilities that could change and/or enhance what and how people make,” he explained. “The class strived to expand students’ ideas about making, enhance their making practices through historical and technical lectures and workshops, and put them in situations where they were learning how to make new things with tools and materials that are new to them—often under the influence of students from the other side of campus.”
Shaffer said an engineering student in the class was inspired by the “making mindset” to teach herself how to knit via YouTube tutorials—and soon after became an active member of the Penn State Knitting Club. “This type of exposure—to new making processes, the vast making potential of the internet, student empowerment through making, and community building—is exactly what we were hoping for when we put the class together.”
Knochel and his colleagues want to expand the “making for the masses” concept beyond Arts and Architecture and Engineering—even beyond Penn State. “Our intention is to forward the notion that while everyone may not make a living as a designer, everyone has the capacity to use design in their lives.”
Knochel, Lauerman, and Meisel will continue to pilot the mobile makerspace—which will ultimately include seven stations—throughout the summer. It will also include a rolling gallery highlighting eccentric and esoteric open-source objects 3D-printed in a range of materials, from bio-plastic to titanium to locally sourced clay. They plan to take the finished product on the road to Penn State campus events at Abington, Greater Allegheny, and Mont Alto, as well as University Park.
“Our NSF funding allows us to explore whether we can harness our excitement as interdisciplinary faculty in digital fabrication, like 3D printing, in a curriculum and mobile classroom, and then inspire that same excitement in students,” said Knochel. “The best part of the research will be to see Penn Staters use the project in ways that we have not imagined.”
For more information, visit the project website at sites.psu.edu/mobilemakerspace.
This article, by Amy Milgrub Marshall, originally appeared in the 2017 edition of the College of Arts and Architecture annual magazine.