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Students thinking creatively through technology

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‘ThinkLab’ in the University of Mary Washington’s Simpson Library encourages all manner of design. Ethan Lane’s creations include this mini submarine device for exploring local waters. He’s attaching an underwater camera. / Photos by Reza Marvashti

‘ThinkLab’ in the University of Mary Washington’s Simpson Library encourages all manner of design. Ethan Lane’s creations include this mini submarine device for exploring local waters. He’s attaching an underwater camera. / Photos by Reza Marvashti

Students brought in some unique designs during a University of Mary Washington freshman seminar called “Makerbots and Mashups.”

Sophomore Ethan Lane showed off a heart made of interlocking gears that turn and work, which he designed and printed using a 3-D printer.

“I’m giving it as a gift to my girlfriend,” he said. “I think she’ll like it. It took me hours to make.”

Other students presented iPhone cases, figurines and jewelry they made with 3-D printers. They talked about how they solved design issues with the class’ three professors: instructional technology specialist Tim Owens, librarian Rosemary Arneson and professor of education George Meadows.

The class also talked about upcoming projects, such as designing and printing their own chess pieces.

This 3-D printer is one of the starring attractions at ThinkLab. The classroom, however, is ‘not defined by technology.’ ‘Thinking creatively’ matters the most within the space.

This 3-D printer is one of the starring attractions at ThinkLab. The classroom, however, is ‘not defined by technology.’ ‘Thinking creatively’ matters the most within the space.

Their Simpson Library classroom, called the “ThinkLab,” is bare bones. There’s a splash of whiteboard paint across a wall, wires and spools of plastic sticking out of every available shelf space, a couple of computers and the lab’s crowning glories: two 3-D printers.

“One thing that’s really powerful about it is that it’s not defined by technology,” Owens said about the ThinkLab. “Really, we’re tricking students into thinking creatively about problems. They’re working in teams, designing things and writing and speaking about their experiences. And they’re having fun doing it.”

The ThinkLab is the UMW Fredericksburg campus’ “makerspace,” which hosts technology and encourages cooperation across disciplines.

‘Makerbots and Mashups’ seminar participants work in teams to print Pokemon and comic characters and use them for chess. It’s just one of the creative ways that the ThinkLab space has been put to use at UMW’s Simpson Library.

‘Makerbots and Mashups’ seminar participants work in teams to print Pokemon and comic characters and use them for chess. It’s just one of the creative ways that the ThinkLab space has been put to use at UMW’s Simpson Library.

The space is a collaboration between the university’s division of teaching and learning technologies, college of education, and library. The ThinkLab has a variety of emerging technologies and tools for students and faculty across all disciplines to use, including 3-D printing, robotics and electronics work using creative software.

For Owens, the goal is for the ThinkLab to become a truly interdisciplinary hub of activity.

“A lot of universities place makerspaces within a specific discourse, but I wanted to resist that,” Owens said. “For Mary Washington, it makes sense to be interdisciplinary.”

And that is beginning to happen.

Four classes other than Makerbots and Mashups use the room regularly.

A biology professor has approached Owens about printing 3-D models of proteins for students to study and perhaps create their own models.

Meadows is teaming up with the classics department at UMW to help students design a model town with traditional Roman architecture that will be printed in the ThinkLab.

Art classes have been using the printers, as well.

Other than gaining a deeper understanding of technology, students learn basic skills such as soldering and sewing.

Lane said he’s picking up skills in the class he’d never have otherwise.

A biology major, Lane plans on researching the Rappahannock River’s native species. To do that, he wants to attach a camera mount to a remote-control helicopter. When he couldn’t find one to fit, he designed it himself, printed it and soldered it to the helicopter.

And when his helicopter broke and he couldn’t find a replacement part, he printed that, too.

Similar to the ThinkLab, UMW also hosts the “LearnerSpace” at its Stafford campus. That space is geared toward teaching graduate education students and connecting with the community.

Though makerspaces, also known as hackerspaces, have been popping up nationwide, UMW is leading the growth of the these do-it-yourself centers in the Fredericksburg area.

Owens founded the ThinkLab in 2011 when makerspaces were first becoming popular in K–12 education, but still relatively scarce at colleges and universities.

After hearing a presentation about the space, Arneson offered the room in the library for the ThinkLab and helped Owens come up with curricula on incorporating electronics into sewing. Meadows offered his knowledge of robotics to the class.

Lane had heard good things about the class and put off taking a freshman seminar until his sophomore year, when he could get a spot in Makerbots and Mashups.

“I can use what I’m learning here for anything,” he said.

Similarly, at the LearnerSpace in Stafford, students are learning how to use technology across disciplines. But the students there are current and future teachers.

The LearnerSpace also allows local entrepreneurs to create and try out prototypes in a collaborative environment.

Meadows runs the LearnerSpace, as well as teaching in the ThinkLab.

The LearnerSpace has spawned makerspaces at Hartwood Elementary School and England Run Library in Stafford. The program also has partnered with Brock Road, Battlefield, Cedar Forest and Robert E. Lee elementary schools in Spotsylvania County to educate teachers and students about engineering.

Meadows said makerspaces are a way to incorporate engineering, which is often missing in K–12 science education, into public school curricula.

And these spaces introduce elementary students to 3-D printers and modular robotics.

“It’s the idea that something can be designed and built by everyday people,” he said.

Meadows said makerspaces are still relatively new, and he’s interested to see how much technology the ThinkLab and LearnerSpace will be able to provide as electronics become less expensive and new innovations pop up.

“The good old days when makerspaces started up was really just two years ago,” he said. “And it’s already grown so much. From one 3-D printer we had to assemble ourselves to printers that are less expensive and out of the box.”

Lindley Estes: 540/735-1976

lestes@freelancestar.com

 

 

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