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Makerspace virtual workshop
July 8, 2020

‘Hands-on’ makerspace summer series reaches students remotely

Written By: Tom Ziemer

In late spring 2020, the engineers who run the University of Wisconsin-Madison Makerspace began contemplating how to continue delivering the facility’s signature hands-on seminars and activities to students who were now learning at a distance.

They turned to methods they know well: designing and prototyping. But in this case, rather than 3D printing a part or laser cutting a component, they retooled their class offerings.

“We just wanted to continue our mission,” says Karl Williamson, shop manager at the makerspace, which is part of the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Lab.

Image from virtual workshop on 3D printing
A workshop on 3D printing.

The result—and test case—is the makerspace’s DIY summer series, which consists of freestanding remote workshops and a two-week online short course, all delivered via real-time Webex webinars. Both offerings give students a hands-on “making fix” amid the COVID-19 pandemic, while also allowing the makerspace team to try out and fine tune new types of programming that could prove useful in upcoming semesters.

Neenah, Wisconsin-based Plexus, a global electronics design and manufacturing firm, is sponsoring the summer series as part of its broader financial support of interdisciplinary design programs across the College of Engineering’s curriculum, from pre-college experiences to senior design capstone projects.

During a typical summer, the makerspace would have hosted a variety of outreach programs through the College of Engineering, as well as classes from across the UW-Madison campus. In summer 2020, the makerspace team was set to lead an introductory course on making and prototyping as part of the university’s new accelerated Master of Science in Design + Innovation program.

Instead, the group retooled that content to create the non-credit short course, which launched July 7 with a capped enrollment of 30. Most participants are current UW-Madison engineering students along with a few incoming first-year students. After taking sessions in computer-aided design (CAD), 3D printing, laser cutting, electronics and microcontrollers, the students will build a project using a free course kit and their individually designed 3D-printed and laser-cut parts, shipped from the makerspace.

The eight remote workshops, which ran from June 9 to July 2 and drew between 10 and 20 participants per session, featured projects that included laser-cut coasters, hand-sewn face masks and 3D prints, replicating in-person sessions the facility offers during a standard semester. The summer versions, though, were open to anyone in the UW-Madison community: students, faculty, staff and alumni.

Like the short course, several of the workshops allowed participants to submit their digital design files to the makerspace team, who used the facility’s equipment to create physical products and mailed them back.

“Students have been really engaged and asking a lot of really smart questions, and I think they have been happy to have us send their completed parts back,” says Lauren Reeg (BSEM ’18), a graduate assistant who has led four of the workshops and one class module in the short course. “It feels like they’ve really done something and have a physical thing to walk away with.”

Feedback from the workshops has been overwhelmingly positive, the makerspace team says. Director Lennon Rodgers, Williamson, operations manager Maggie Muldowney and graduate assistants Reeg, Rebecca Alcock and Lukas Duddleston are hopeful the summer series will provide a model for future remote or hybrid offerings—both of which could be needed as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect campus operations.

“We want to provide students with a remote learning experience that is fun, interactive and hands-on,” says Rodgers.