Brandeis MakerLab Draws STEM Students Into Library

Ian Murphy
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Students and staff at the Brandeis MakerLab

To reinvent the traditional academic library’s role, staff members at Brandeis University are building new collaborative spaces. For the last three years, the Brandeis University library has steadily nurtured this innovation program — called the MakerLab — to give students and faculty a valuable set of services and learning opportunities.

Three dedicated library staff members provide materials, education, and support for students. This allows Brandeis scholars to explore a growing number of new technology components: 3D printers, experimental drones, robotics systems, and other bleeding-edge tools. The result is a physical place for students to experiment with tech-engineering solutions for their personal projects — and a well-loved library program that promotes cross-disciplinary research.

A major reason for the program’s early success, according to Research Technology Specialist Hazal Uzunkaya, is that students participating in the MakerLab program not only have precious real estate and resources to call their own — but also a collaborative group of staff and student volunteers, who provide feedback and support for their ideas.

“I think what makes our students come back and create more, and become more creative, is that we’re not telling them what to do,” Uzunkaya says. “It’s autonomy: we’re giving them the right to do whatever they want, and we’re sincerely interested in what they’re [doing].”

Students can move a project into the prototype stage, through several rounds of iterative modification, all the way to a final version — with as much (or as little) oversight as the students want. The MakerLab looks different than a traditional program, explains Matthew Sheehy, the Brandeis University librarian, but the core idea falls solidly into the library’s mission.

“The library is about a couple of things,” says Sheehy. “And one of them is delivering resources to contribute to student success and to faculty research success.”

Brandeis Empowering Student Scientific Creativity

Such a budding technology program is vital for a college without a formal engineering department, says Brandeis Director for Research Technology and Innovation Ian Roy. This is because it leads to hands-on discovery and innovation. For instance, JoVE recently published an article in the engineering section where the first author was a Brandeis student who isn’t studying engineering. (The article is about how to use 3D printing to improve biomolecular research and teaching.)

Already, the program has an estimated 300-400 students actively engaged — or some 10 percent of the 3,500-large Brandeis student body. “The model is really unique in that it is so student-driven and the students are so enthusiastic about what’s going on there,” says Sheehy.

Moreover, Sheehy and his staff relish switching roles. They are moving away from being gatekeepers, regulating access to journals and books — and becoming enablers for digital-based experiential learning and more. “This is where libraries need to be,” says Sheehy.

Unconventional and open in its approach, MakerLab enables a unique type of collaboration — one without typical departmental silos. That promotes inventive creativity, says MakerLab Embedded Systems and Robotics Consultant Tim Hebert.

There are many Brandeis subject matter experts, from various disciplines, participating. “And they tend to be able to think way outside of the box with a lot of the stuff that they’re trying to do,” says Hebert. “That’s a result of not being tainted by thinking that they’re restricted in one way or another.”

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