The value of tinkering

Elon’s Maker Hub provides a space where students can tinker and learn perseverance through failure.

<p>Students work on end-of-semester projects in the Maker Hub in Harper Hall of the Colonnades neighborhood.&nbsp;</p>
Ask any student if they like to fail, and the answer would most likely be “No way.” Yet, we know from experience that failure is an important component of the learning process. 

But how can one make that concept tangible to students in a practical, nonthreatening way? Simple: give them access to a space where they can gather to create, tinker, explore and discover using a variety of tools, materials and knowledge that support a maker mindset—taking ownership of your learning, developing your intrinsic motivation and embracing failure as an essential component of your learning process. 

The maker movement is taking root in communities around the globe and on college campuses across the country. It’s also the essential principle behind Elon’s Maker Hub, which opened last fall in Harper Hall of the Colonnades neighborhood. The idea for a maker space at Elon began organically in 2013, after conversations between a group of faculty and Teaching and Learning Technologies staff led to instructional technologists Michael Vaughn and Dan Reis visiting similar spaces at other universities to explore the possibilities of bringing such a space to Elon. They discovered that some were housed in the library, while most were located in engineering/environmental studies schools. After talking with faculty and staff across the university, the pair also realized there was no boundary for the maker philosophy: there were people across all disciplines interested in making things, which meant the Hub would embody all the engaged principles that characterize Elon.

Christopher Waters, assistant vice president for technology and chief information officer, who was tasked with coordinating the efforts to make it all happen, says the challenge was to find a location that would attract a wider range of students while fitting within ongoing engaged learning initiatives at the university. The latter provided the answer: the perfect location to engage students is in a residence hall. “It was a way to put into practice what we say on a regular basis,” says Waters, not only about experiential learning but also about collaborating with partners across the university to create an environment for learning. “At Elon, one of the ways you learn is through experience. By partnering with Student Life to create the space, it became uniquely Elon.”

Making the space

on the first floor of Harper Hall. It offers self-contained modules in five areas—3-D printing and design, mobile programming, electronics, e-textiles and microcomputing—and gives visitors access to tools, supplies and knowledge to pursue a project of their choosing. “The knowledge is really the most important part,” says Vaughn, who alongside Reis oversees operations at the Hub. A staff of nine students manages day-to-day operations and offers weekly sessions based on their own interests, whether it’s 3-D printing, computing, origami, knitting or baking.

While it can be intimidating to see all the high-tech equipment, the space is set up to make beginners feel comfortable. In addition to providing access to tutorials, it has experienced staff eager to guide visitors in their area of interest. “If you’ve never written code in your life but have always wanted to build an app, we can help you get started,” Vaughn says. “We want people who think they don’t belong to be in the space.” Reis agrees. “Makers come from nearly every department and unit on campus,” he says. “We want people to realize: this is your space.”

Senior Connor TeVault is one of the space’s student staff members. “I’ve been following the maker movement since 2013,” says TeVault, who has built his own 3-D printer using parts 3-D printed at the Hub. “It’s always been a passion.” A self-proclaimed tinkerer, the physics major and applied mathematics minor worked alongside Vaughn and Reis during summer 2015 to prepare the hardware and space prior to its opening, an experience that taught him new skills: planning, budgeting and managing a team, among others. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “It made me more confident in my abilities.”

Like all Hub staff members, TeVault provides training on equipment and guidance to anyone who needs it. He’s been amazed at the results he has seen in students who came into the space with doubts about their own abilities. He believes students with a maker mindset don’t view a lack of success as failure, which is why he thinks having the Hub is so important for the university. “Everyone can be a maker,” he says.

Vaughn believes today’s culture of standardized testing in K-12 education is creating a generation of students who lack an understanding of how learning works, a willingness to struggle with complex ideas and theories, and the resiliency to fight through failure. In contrast, he says, maker spaces like Elon’s Hub allow students to go through trial and error to produce a final product. Many academically bright students, he adds, are perfectionists who give up after only failing once. The iterative process they engage in as part of any maker project—plan, try, fail, try again—forces them to embrace failure and continue working at it until they get it right. “The core foundation is, as educators, we love learning. When you make something, you experience that,” says Vaughn. “But you don’t always get it right the first time around. Failure is OK because it’s valuable.”

Using the space

The best part so far, Reis says, has been hearing ideas from students who are eager to discover how things are made and from faculty interested in using the Hub in their classes. Joel Hollingsworth, senior lecturer in computing sciences, encouraged students to use the space as part of his “Internet of Things” class. Assistant Professor of Art History Holly Silvers invited students in her “Vikings, Saxons, and Monks” Winter Term art history course to use the 3-D printers to create an artifact based on readings done in class. And Adjunct Assistant Professor of Physics Maria Falbo incorporated a new maker assignment where students built an instrument to measure the position of the sun or moon in her “Introduction to Astronomy” course. “I was really excited to see what they came up with,” Falbo says. “I’m a fan of making. I think making anything, whether it’s for science or art or whatever—making something with your hands, understanding how things are put together—gives you an appreciation for craftsmanship, and helps you in everything in life.”

Assistant Professor of Biology Eric Bauer agrees. Regardless of what career students pursue, they will have to demonstrate some element of creativity along the way. “You are going to have to make something, whether it’s an article for publication or a new engineering piece of software,” he says. “You are the creator and that’s where your value is.” Besides encouraging students to use the space, Bauer has used the Hub’s 3-D printer to print parts and to solder together electronic components for equipment he uses as part of his research. One such piece was a micromanipulator, which is used to position an object with very fine precision under a microscope and hold it in place. He also created a light-filtering system (pictured) to use with existing microscopes in his lab. 

Bauer’s research involves toxicological screening of chemicals for potential harm to animals. In order to identify chemicals that might need more detailed investigation, he treats zebrafish with a chemical. He then uses a fluorescent dye to examine how well certain structures on the fish survive the treatment. “I can put a very small fish underneath the microscope and if the light shows the glow nicely, then the fish is unharmed,” says Bauer. “But if there is presence of a damaging chemical, it won’t glow anymore.” He says he would be hard-pressed to find the budget to purchase a similar light-filtering system for all the students in a typical class. Being able to make them himself, he adds, frees his budget for other things.

In an effort to give students the same opportunity to turn an idea into reality, students were encouraged in the fall to apply for an Elon Kickbox, which, as the name suggests, is a box that comes with guidance, resources and a $300 gift card to help them develop an original project. Because students need to find a sponsor during the application process, Vaughn says the process allows for interactions with students even before the project starts. “It’s an innovative way to fund a student project.”

The 10 students who were selected in January have been working throughout the spring semester to complete their projects, which range from a smart mirror that provides weather and news updates, to an app that allows the user to transfer unused money from gift cards to developing economies across the globe. The participants presented their projects at the Student Undergraduate Research Forum and showed off their work at the local Burlington Mini Maker Faire in April.

Since the Hub opened, more than 800 people have visited the space .
Though it’s only been open for less than a year, Waters says they are already looking for ways to expand the space. It’s something Hub users will welcome. “I wish it were bigger,” Bauer says. “As great as it is, the demand is there to be even more. It’s the classic, ‘if you build it, they will come’—and they have come.”

Beyond finding alternatives to grow the physical space, Vaughn says they plan to continue growing the maker community on campus by not only focusing on the Hub but also on other existing spaces, such as the Loy Farm’s workshop, art labs, electronic labs for engineering, music studios and kitchens across campus. “These are all maker spaces that don’t have a connection to each other.” He hopes the Maker Hub can serve as a connector for all them. He and his team also would like to see more academic integration with the hub and for students to use the space beyond classwork. 

“The most important project that they can expect to work on is themselves,” Vaughn says. “You are the project we are working on.”