November is, to many, a month for makers. The Poughkeepsie Day School will be hosting a “Mini Maker Faire” to bring together the mid-Hudson area’s hackers, crafters and creators of all persuasions to share ideas and learn. Meanwhile, Vassar will be hosting a series of four talks that will be held throughout November to hear students’ ideas and inform those who want to know more about what a makerspace is and how they can contribute. The Digital Scholarship Services Collaboration (DiSSCo) are sponsoring these conversations, as well as the space itself when it is established.
According to DiSSCo’s events websites, a makerspace is a community place that provides resources for design, education and creation. The information page reads, “Makerspaces combine manufacturing equipment, community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone.” These spaces can take varied forms, depending on the interests of the community, so participants will shape Vassar’s own makerspace.
Staff and students encourage all to attend, even those without any experience. Academic Computing Consultant and DiSSCo member Amy Laughlin said in an emailed statement, “Experience is not a prerequisite to participating. Anyone interested should attend and find out more about the creative potential that spaces like a digital studio or makerspace would have to offer. Makerspaces are built around the idea of creating a diverse community of makers that are able to share ideas and knowledge in a place that also provides the necessary tools and equipment to bring those ideas into reality.”
Students with interests in computer science have long expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of venues for computer science and digital design at Vassar. One outlet of creative energy for technologically-inclined students like Sufyan Abbasi ’18 is to work for Academic Computing Services, contributing to faculty projects by making educational technology and designing websites and presentations. A group of passionate students has also formed the VSA pre-organization VC++, a space for students to learn and practice using practical computer programming and software skills. President and Co-Founder Jayce Rudig-Leathers ’16 explained, “VC++ is an organization to provide a place for students to use and learn about technology, with the angle of being able to use technology to create things.”
While the organization is extracurricular, its members want to use their time and effort to prepare themselves for careers in the digital world by working on skills that Vassar does not teach. Rudig-Leathers emphasized, ”Vassar’s CS department is very theory-based, theory-heavy; we [only] have one class that’s actually on software development and how to actually go about building things. [I]f somebody just majors in CS and then wants to go into the job market, they’re totally unprepared. If you just go through the motions and do all your classes, you can get good grades and understand everything, you’re totally unprepared to go work for Google or Facebook or something like that. So you need to teach yourself outside, do side projects and stuff, to actually learn how real development works, so that’s what I’m trying to do with VC++, is to give people a way to do that together and to learn things together.”
While the talks will be aimed at students and focused on gathering student input, they were organized by the faculty members of DiSSCo. Rudig-Leathers spoke about the importance of student involvement in the planning of the makerspace. He said, ”I think the makerspace is Vassar’s technology bureaucracy trying to respond to the same need VC++ is responding to. VC++ needs to be incorporated into that somehow, so it’s not [as if] the VSA funds VC++ and CIS is throwing money at this makerspace. I think Vassar needs to sit down and have a real talk about how they’re approaching technology and how they’re teaching technology.” This is exactly what DiSSCO hopes to accomplish with makerspace conversations. Laughlin said, “There are many groups that have expressed an interest in creating a makerspace/ digital studio and we feel it’s important to tap into that interest to find out exactly what type of environment and equipment would be the most beneficial to students, staff, and faculty.”
Makerspaces are not a new concept; they already exist in the professional world and on other campuses. The webpage for the talks features videos of makerspace projects from colleges like Case Western Reserve, Tulane, and Georgia Tech University. Abbasi remarked, “Many other campuses have makerspaces and they’ve been able to produce a lot of amazing things. It’s time Vassar has one too. The question is: what are we going to do that’s the Vassar version of the makerspace?”
Abbasi also stressed the importance of recognizing and including creators of all kinds in these discussions. “A makerspace allows Vassar students an opportunity to express themselves in a technical makery way,” he explained. “When I say maker, I mean if you knit, if you love fashion design, if you make robots. Vassar students are creative people, but sometimes we’re at a lack of resources and equipment. Figuring out what people want and then providing the resources to do that is what the makerspace is all about. We need a community space to make things that people are interested in making. When you usually think of makers, you think of robots and computer stuff. But that’s just a tiny part: people have been making for such a long time.”
DiSSCo encourages students to reach out and contribute ideas, offering a forum on their website as a way to facilitate discussion. Laughlin mused, “What I think a space like this would mean to Vassar is that it would put the necessary tools and resources in the hands of our incredibly talented and amazing community. The sky is the limit.”