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The Anderson Labs Setup

The three separate Anderson Labs spaces were not located in the same building. The Student Design Lab and Student Machine Shop were in the Mechanical Engineering building, and the Student Shop was placed in the Civil Engineering building, all of which were on the East Bank campus of UMN. There were underground tunnels that connected them. The official reception of the Anderson Labs was the Student Design Lab on the second floor of the Mechanical Engineering building.

The Student Design Lab was a large workspace equipped with workbenches, tables, hand tools, some power tools, laser cutters, computers, and 3D printers. According to Guengerich, the primary purpose of this lab was to allow students to test out their design through rapid prototyping and modeling. It has open meeting pods with chairs and whiteboards that let students collaborate or discuss ideas. The Student Design Lab was open seven days a week during the regular semester. For welding and more intensive woodworking, students would need to use the Student Shop in the Civil Engineering building. This lab was a half-open workspace with 3D scanners, 3D printers, materials testing load frame, and woodwork facilities. The Student Shop was also open seven days a week during the semester. If students wanted to perform metalworks, they would need to use the Student Machine Shop in the Mechanical Engineering building. The machine shop was staffed by professional machinists with metalworking mills, lathes and grinders, milling machines, and waterjet cutters. Given the staffing hours, this lab was open only Monday through Friday during the regular semester.

Access to Anderson Labs

Access to the Anderson Labs was granted to students enrolled in an engineering/ CSE course or in any of the CSE programs. Non-CSE faculty and students could access the makerspace if they were collaborators on a CSE-related project or had received permission from Guengerich, the lab manager. For instance, when my department and I organized the 2017 Great Plains Alliance for Computers and Writing, participants of our pre-conference workshop on smart material technologies were allowed to use the Student Design Lab because one of our collaborators, Dr. Julianna Abel, was a CSE/mechanical engineering faculty. Later in my interview with another CSE faculty, I learned that some non-CSE faculty had also been granted access to the labs in the past because their research contributed to the greater CSE missions.

Maker Experience at Anderson Labs

To understand the culture of making in the makerspace beyond its spatial setup and administrative workflow, I conducted semi-structured interviews with students who were using the labs during my visit:

  • • How long have you been using this makerspace?
  • • How often do you use this makerspace?
  • • Who/what introduced you to this makerspace?
  • • What do you use this makerspace for?
  • • When do you prefer to come to this makerspace?
  • • What projects) are you working on? Tell me more about it/them.
  • • Is/are your project(s) connected to any class you are enrolled in? If so, in what ways?
  • • How does this makerspace support your project(s)?
  • • Do you think you might be able to complete your project elsewhere or outside this makerspace? Why?
  • • What is your overall impression about this makerspace?
  • • What do you think of the resources and the staff members of this makerspace?
  • • How might this makerspace better serve your needs?
  • • Would you recommend this makerspace to others? To whom and why?
  • • Any additional comments?

According to a mechanical engineering student, Adam, who identified as a frequent user of the Anderson Labs, the makerspace was a response to the growing need for fabrication equipment for students. When asked about his evaluation of the makerspace, Adam shared the observation that students appreciated having dedicated workbenches and fabrication equipment. They were able to “see each other’s progress, share advice, and occasionally receive ad hoc mentorship from older students,” Adam said. Adam also emphasized how students groups have made the Anderson Labs their meeting place:

Student organizations immediately found a natural home in the new space. Their educational workshops have been able to accommodate a larger number of students because of access to tables and tools in a permanent and spacious location. The Anderson Labs have legitimized their freedom to create learning experiences, more powerful than those in the classroom because they are founded in camaraderie and peer mentorship.

Another student interviewee, Mickey, was a student worker at the Anderson Labs responsible for maintaining equipment and assisting makers. When I asked about his experience with working there, he noted how the space is difficult to find on campus and therefore not getting many visits from students. He especially regarded the underground tunnels to be confusing even for CSE students. Mickey also observed that, based on his one-year experience working at the labs, there were more male students than female students using the makerspace. He pointed out how that could be a problem for the growth of the makerspace:

I think the lab will present cultural barriers to new students who might use it. It is housed in the mechanical engineering building, a program with a historically low percentage of female students. Since mechanical engineering courses were early users of the space, it was not uncommon for me to walk into the lab and see 10 men using the space and not a single woman. I think it will be important to actively promote an environment where first-time users, regardless of their gender or familiarity with making, feel comfortable being in the space.

In fact, Adam had also shared the same empathy for students who aren’t granted access to the labs. He believed that it defeats the purpose of a makerspace as a cross-disciplinary learning commons if access was only granted to engineering students:

The fact that access to the Anderson Labs is limited to engineering students was incredibly frustrating to the student leaders who envisioned the space. Few classrooms allow students to work with peers studying a different major. The diversity of ideas and interests different majors would bring to the makerspace community is more than worth the meager cost to the College of Science and Engineering.

I agreed with the observations by these students—the physical location of the Anderson Labs was really its biggest hindrance to many potential makers. The labs were isolated from where students would typically meet and work (e.g., libraries, computer labs, student unions). As pointed out by Mickey, the lab in the civil engineering building was particularly hard to locate. For infrequent visitors, the labs’ locations might be the biggest reason for makers to avoid the makerspace.

During my site visit, I also observed that makers performed more manufacturing work than design activities when using the Anderson Labs. The way the labs were set up encouraged students to cut, drill, and solder away their project rather than focusing on 2D design. The lack of computers and spaces for sketching, drawing, and modeling made it seem as though digital modeling and wireframing were not as important as actual building of a physical prototype.

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