Vassarites create with lasers, drones in Innovation Lab

Coasters, stickers, interlocking sculptures and wood prints are prominently displayed on the table closest to the Innovation Lab’s entrance. Tools like the heat press, sitting behind the womp-womp bottle, enable the creativity of Vassar students to take shape before their eyes (and at no cost). Courtesy of Alex Kim

“Can we really use everything here for free?” I hear Vassar students and faculty members ask in astonishment when they come to the Vassar Innovation Lab, where I work as a student employee. Located by the spiral staircase of the Old Bookstore, the lab is what is known as a makerspace. It houses all kinds of different technology services and tools: 3D printers, a laser cutter, a vinyl cutter, a heat press, a VR machine, drones, you name it. It has only been a month since the lab has opened, but the space is already filled with hundreds of creative products such as womp-womp vinyl stickers, Innovation Lab t-shirts, cardboard cat kits and 3D printed stegosauruses, all made by Vassar students and the lab manager Chad Fust (who is also my boss). Relaxed and approachable, Fust and I chatted during my Friday shift about Vassar’s newest channel of creativity.

Fust, who worked as an Emerging Technologies and Training Specialist at the CIS desk in the College Center for 12 years, now supervises the Innovation Lab. Fust shared a number of reasons that motivated the creation of the makerspace. “CIS always wanted to make a makerspace. A lot of our peer institutions already had a makerspace like this, and some of our incoming students also had a makerspace in their high schools,” Fust said. “Wanting to be on par with other institutions was one of the biggest motivations to create the Innovation Lab.”

Fust also highlighted the multidisciplinary potential the Vassar Innovation Lab brings. “We have all these new emerging technologies to experiment with and to provide creative solutions to various problems,” Fust explained. There are a couple of ongoing class projects that utilize the tools at the Innovation Lab to find solutions to certain problems. For instance, Visiting Lecturer in Computer Science Susan Reiser came in with her computer science class to have her students design, laser cut and engrave their names on name tags to identify themselves when they are out in the field working with the Poughkeepsie community. In addition, Professor of Biology and Cognitive Science Department Chair John Long, who teaches animal physiology, has planned a project designing customized egg cases to study skate embryos, which surround the eggs of oviparous sharks, skates and chimaeras.

While the Innovation Lab presents so many new possibilities to create, experiment and solve problems using fancy technologies and tools, the space is about more than just technology. Stephen Han ’23, a first-year student employee at the Innovation lab, described how the lab has become a space of comfort on campus in the midst of shifts and adjustments into college: “When I am stressed out because of a paper I have to finish or a test I have to study for, this is one of the places I can come to and relax, learn and have fun. It is rare to find a job that you have fun in.” Han has been posting a series of Instagram stories featuring all the laser-cut products he made at work with an enthusiastic caption saying “I love my job!” in bold.

The Vassar Innovation Lab is a makerspace that is fully equipped with all sorts of gadgets and gizmos that easily turn ideas into reality. However, those who run the lab envision the space to be more than a means of executing an already formulated plan. “The lab is a space for everybody to come in and make things and experiment with tools. And I am hoping to take the experimentation part further by encouraging people to come up with new ideas and designs. We want to live up to the name of innovation,” Fust noted.

Every time I come to work, I am met with another scene depicting multidisciplinary innovation. After my interview with Fust, I struck up a conversation with a student at the laser cutter. They had just shot a focused laser beam and melted a chunk of material off to form two fish-shaped earrings. Then, I helped another student use an entirely different process to cut a small name tag for his keychain. Afterwards, I left the lab with Fust, cradling a drone with him as we walked to the Chapel. We met with a faculty member and her student assistant, who we were assisting with a project. He set the drone down, applied pressure to his controls, and, watching the drone’s monitor, guided it level with the chapel bells. The drone took photos of the bells, and Fust landed it for all of us to examine.

Seeing Vassar Innovation Lab’s ability to bring people of diverse interests and spark conversations all across the disciplines, it seems to me that the lab has already gotten a step closer to achieving the goal of living up to its name. Can you imagine a student finding the perfect pair fish earrings? Can you imagine capturing the chapel bells on camera without the drone? Can you see all the doors that have yet to be opened?

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