by Melanie A. Farmer
All engineers need a place to tinker. At the newly opened Columbia Makerspace, students will be able to do that and more with a dedicated place on campus to collaborate, learn, explore, experiment, and create prototypes.
Located on the 12th floor of the Mudd Building, the Makerspace is equipped with a variety of hand tools and specialized tools, including an industrial sewing machine and a CNC embroidery system; a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and vinyl cutters; an extensive collection of woodworking tools; and electronics assembly and testing and debugging benches. Makerspace offers a central location for students to explore and create, whether their interest lies in woodworking and digital fabrication or textile arts and electronics. In addition to the work areas, the space also will serve as a place to host short seminars or student workshops.
Purely student driven, the idea for the space was brought on by a group of Engineering students who lobbied Dean Mary C. Boyce last fall. The dean recruited a faculty steering committee to work with students on its formation and launch. Now, a leadership committee comprised of 10 students is in place and charged with setting the priorities and policies of the new space, and its operational structure.
Sophomore Sahir Jaggi was one of the students instrumental in getting the Makerspace off the ground. He says, “Beyond resources for projects, a makerspace provides an environment that is conducive to collaboration, to hands-on learning, to experimentation, and is a place open to everyone, regardless of academic standing or discipline.”
The Makerspace, though housed at the Engineering School, is open to all Columbia undergraduates and their collaborators. And students are welcome to use the tools and the room whether or not they are working on a specific school-related project. As Ioannis (John) Kymissis puts it, “This is one distinguishing feature from other campus resources—the only requirement is that if they want to make something, then they can come and do it.”
Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering, was tapped in the spring to help direct the Makerspace. He works closely with the Engineering Student Council and both the faculty and student committees on managing its overall function, including overseeing key matters like safety and purchasing. Kymissis is a big fan of having this much-needed resource.
“Facilities like the Makerspace allow students to express their creativity and work on their engineering and artistic skills,” Kymissis says. “Students don’t always have access to certain tools or equipment that they might otherwise want to try out either for creative or practical reasons. They might want to monogram a jacket, fix their bike, or build a sculpture using laser-cut plastic pieces. The Makerspace lets them learn how to do this from their peers and provides the resources required to get projects done.”
So not only does the Makerspace serve as an actual space to build and work on projects and prototypes, it also spurs a sense of community. “What has also formed is a community interested in building, repairing, and trying new things—the sorts of things engineers love to do,” Kymissis adds. “I want to be sure that students can show up with an idea and walk out having made it in as many domain areas as possible.”
Jaggi is excited about the potential for also sitting in on classes and workshops that will be held at the new space. Having the Makerspace “allows us to cultivate a community of people interested in building things, and we can encourage more of a ‘maker’ culture at Columbia.”