At Kent State University, the Design Innovation Hub is a central resource on campus that provides makespace access and connects to the other makerspaces on campus. What is unique is its focus on fashion, design and art. In this episode, I talk to J.R. Campbell, who is the Executive Director of the Design Innovation Initiative, and Andrea Oleniczak, who manages the hub and its ecosystem. Campbell believes that a makerspace provides the on-ramps and off-ramps for a student to explore their interests outside of major. Oleniczak sees the opportunity to create an ecosystem that includes the larger community outside the school.
For a look at the Design Innovation Hub, you can take a virtual 3D tour.
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I recorded this episode before students had returned for the fall semester at Kent State. Since then, Andrea said that there’s been a “slow but steady increase in students using the facility with strong engagement from our Design Innovation Courses.” She also mentioned that DI Hub is hiring and looking for two assistant managers and a Director of Strategic Communications. They are planning to double their staff in the next few months.
Transcript: Best Maker Schools – Kent State University
J.R. Campbell: The role of making was as much about community development and communication across divides. Like working with people who are not like you and figuring out how through making you can actually communicate. And then ideate and then solve. We also realized at the same time that there were more than 25 different makerspaces that have been created across the university that most of us had no idea existed.
Dale Dougherty: J.R. Campbell is the Executive Director of the Design Innovation Initiative at Kent State University in Ohio. He is one of the leaders behind the Design Innovation Hub, which opened in 2020 in a renovated building that once held the art department. The DI hub is a central resource on campus that encourages students to engage in innovation practices and gives them access to the tools and a community in a makerspace. Campbell says that a makerspace provides on-ramps and off-ramps to students to explore and experiment, especially outside their major. Perhaps what makes the Design Innovation Hub different from many makerspaces is its strong focus on art, design and fashion. Campbell is himself an artist with an MFA in textile arts and costume design.
In this conversation about Kent State, we are joined by Andrea Oleniczak who manages the Design Innovation Hub and its ecosystem. She had once worked at TechShop Detroit. I asked Andrea more about her background and what brought her to Kent State, a job she took without actually visiting the Design Innovation Hub.
Andrea Oleniczak: My background in makerspaces is pretty long. I started working in community makerspaces and then in graduate school, I was at the UW Madison and ended up connecting for the College of Engineering, Grainger Design Innovation Laboratory, and helping them.
That was really a three-year wonderful experience of learning what it looked like to incorporate a makerspace really thoroughly into academics and into higher ed. Having that experience, I was really looking to go back into makerspaces after leaving graduate school with the caveat that I really wanted to have that in a community sense and not have that under a departmental umbrella.
And so when I started reading about Kent State, the stars were really aligning for me and I had to figure out what was happening here. Just in terms of Kent State being something that was going to be open to the whole community. And really it was looking at forming an entire ecosystem around the maker environments here.
Dale: JR, so you really spearheaded this effort to create a a Design Innovation Hub. And it looks like your background’s in fashion. And which I think is a really wonderful and unusual twist.
J.R.: So my my first degree is actually environmental design and then I went on and did an MFA in textile arts and costume design. And for me actually the broader sense of design and sustainability have always been a really key to how I have explored both my artistic work and the use of technology, different tools as a digital textile artist. For me personally, the evolution feels natural.
I also grew up on a farm and always worked and built things. And that, that kind of knowledge, or that the tacit experience in the way that, that helps not just to make and solve problems, but to understand problems and think. That’s always been appealing to me and something that I’ve tried to embed in how I approach teaching design studio courses.
And so I came to Kent State, with my textiles background. I have been affiliated with fashion programs through most of my academic career. I had been directing a research center at Glasgow School of Art called the Center for Advanced Textiles and was focused on being a Fab Lab, but a commercial environment and a research environment for exploring digital textile, especially printing technologies.
When I came to Kent State to Drake Fashion School, I was already aware of the range of resources and the power of the school, but it hadn’t really, at least in terms of the technology, it hadn’t really been coalesced into a vision. And so I started the Textile Lab in the fashion school that was Fab Lab/Makerspace to use all of the digital input and output tools that we could pull together in the context of fashion, both to explore art and design and what you can make, but also the the business models that are influenced by being digital. And so that’s where it tied into my research and work as an artist. I was thinking about how we adopt and utilize new tools, but also the implications for us in those contexts.
Dale: So you were part of a group that came up with the plan?
J.R.: I was just gonna say, so we got connected because of that. I got connected to people across the university. There were a core of eight of us at the beginning that were coming from the, like the director of the Liquid Crystal Institute at Kent State from architecture, from university library, from a lot of different parts of the university that you wouldn’t normally think of as connecting, but we were interested in thinking about how we could create situations for students to work across disciplines together to solve problems. And for me, that started the creation of the fashion tech hackathon where wearable technology is a great example that there isn’t any student who’s really studying the full set of skills and technologies to understand how to, on their own, completely develop wearable tech solutions.
And it requires collaboration. It requires different knowledge sets and personalities to make it happen. The concept of how we link this to makerspaces, I think as an initiative evolved from really being about how do we explore cross disciplinary collaboration of the bigger problems?
And so in that sense, the role of making was as much about community development and communication across divides. Like working with people who are not like you and figuring out how through making you can actually communicate. And then ideate and then solve. That’s where the core of this link came together.
And we all we also realized at the same time that there were more than 25 different makerspaces that have been created across the university that most of us had no idea existed. And so it was really about how can we make that visible and then start to think about connecting it as an ecosystem.
Dale: Each with kind of their own purpose and sometimes departmental focus.
J.R.: Absolutely. Yeah. All of those, what we now call the DI nodes, they were born out of their own kind of academic areas and they’re managed there, but our hope is that what we’re doing as we grow this university-wide initiative is not just creating some efficiencies, maybe an ordering of supplies and things like that, but really creating a culture of making that helps all of our students and the community think more expansively about the role of making and makerspaces. One of our most conceptual DI nodes in terms of it being a Makerspace is the land that’s next to the research pond at the edge of campus as a growing space, it’s a kind of making that I think is unique to how we’re approaching this.
But even in the building, we have innovation teaching kitchens, kitchens, and we’re trying to help our students at least think about making, not just in the context of laser cutters, et cetera.
Dale: Give me just a quick walking tour of your building, this new building and it’s was opening during COVID.
J.R.: Actually we do have a digital walkthrough. We did a Matterport scan of the walk-through scan of the entire building. So you can walk through informally. And the reason that we did that was we couldn’t have a physical grand opening event. And so we created a virtual grand opening event.
But yeah, so maybe Andrea, do you wanna talk about the scope of the building and what’s included.
Andrea: It’s three stories and the first floor is really the heart of the Makerspace collaborative environment. And that’s what we call the Reactor. So inside the Reactor, there’s a large open collaboration space that you’ll see in most makerspaces. And then there are labs and shops that are off to the side.
So we have a laser cutting and 3d print room, a woodshop, a metal shop, a CNC lab, an electronics and prototyping shop, a resource library, a paint and glue shop, an industrial bay for large projects and a water jet cutter. And that’s all surrounded in the Reactor. Outside of that on the first floor, we have what we call the Blake Lab, which is really an immersive space that is growing into all different directions, but ideally it would involve VR/AR, mixed reality.
Right now we’re installing short throw projectors for a full wraparound projection as well as sound. And then it has the capacity to do a full curtain wraparound. So if you wanted to just wrap the black curtain around and just call it a performance and studio space, you could, we also have green screen curtain so that you can do content creation.
There’s also the designer in residence studio that will be occupied and shared faculty studio. That’s open on the first floor. There’s a lot. Okay. So moving up to the second floor we have the admin suites and the DI fellow suite, which is a beautiful space for the program that JR is developing out with the DI fellows. So I’ll let him elaborate on that.
We have LaunchNet for the entrepreneurial business startup, the innovation teaching kitchen, a print lab, which is very specific to textiles. So we’re talking about a dye sublimation and heat presses, a gallery. MuseLab, Spark Studio, which is a mini makerspace and the DI classroom.
I think that’s everything. I just had to take a little tour. As I mentioned when we were first talking to the third floor is dining which kind of pulls everyone on campus to this one location as the great new spot to eat on.
Dale: So it’s not a new building.
J.R.: This was the original school of art building, well originally in the sense that it was the first one where it hold the school of art together, back in 1972. It was a John Andrews design. And it was a controversial. It’s a very unique building, has inverted roof lines and was clad externally with Kalwall, the fiberglass kind of translucent materials.
So during the daytime, the sun infused into the building and during the nighttime and the lights were on, it looked like a big glowing cube. And it was designed for collaboration at that point, which was radical in the context of studio arts. And so we took advantage of the footprint and the steel of the building, and basically just reconfigured everything else to to organize it into what Andrea just described.
Dale: How did you get the administration behind this idea and then get funding to do this?
J.R.: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a good question. So I’ve been researching this across a number of different institutions because of how we’re growing. Since we were a grassroots kind of initiative in the university, and there were a few like myself who were in lower level administrative –department chairs and assistant deans and things like that, that were part of that early group. We had some fluency and capabilities. But really this was an idea that we really wanted to transcend the college boundaries. And our goal with DI is to never be a school or a degree program or a college. Once we do that, then we just become a discipline again. And this is not, this is a discipline agnostic concept in that regard.
Dale: It breaks all the rules.
J.R.: And also it represents something that normally is not safe or doesn’t exist in the university. We don’t often create spaces like this that are unprogrammed, unaccredited, like that. But have a real educational purpose, not just to be an access.
So I think one of the things that we’re, that we’re really trying to say is this is not just a building that is an open access Makerspace with expansive thinking. This is a program, an educational program that we believe every student at the university should have access to. And it takes advantage of the makerspaces to actually illustrate how it works.
Dale: I want to come back to that.
J.R.: So once we had mapped the landscape of the university with some of our pioneering students and recognize that there were these twenty-five plus different kind of makerspaces or resource facilities, it became much more tangible for our president and provost in terms of how they were thinking about what we were trying to say.
And, in that sense, by making those things visible and starting down the path of creating a DI Hub or suggesting the creation. I think the president of our university at the time saw that this was a kind of a game-changer for how the university positions itself. We were also, this was very strategic, we were lucky in that we had a building on campus that either had to be torn down and would have been incredibly costly to do or something else had to happen with it. And. So we took advantage of the fact that there was a time sensitive need to address this building paired with our timing for starting an initiative. We’re able to get funding from both the state and from the university to come together. It was a $45 million redesign projects. Wow.
Dale: How long did it take?
J.R.: It was incredibly fast, actually. From the decision to do the work to the completion of the building, it was just two years. The process, even though it was mammoth, it did go quite quickly. In many ways, it, it was a interesting timing in terms of having the building open during pandemic, because every other academic Makerspace across the U S was basically saying we, we need to shut down.
We didn’t have the funding to be able to start with the staff that we needed because of COVID as well. And so it gave us a chance to dig into the building a little bit further and and get ready for this year.
Dale: You’re expecting the first students about now, right? To come in.
Andrea: Yeah, absolutely. So we were open a little bit last year, as best as possible with masking and social distancing. And what that did allow us to do is fold in groups that were doing research. So like the Advanced Telerobotics Research Group, we were able to support them with water jet cutting for a robot build, which was wonderful.
So it started small last year and a trickle. But you can feel the buzz on campus this fall and it’s quite different than last year. And so I’m anticipating in the coming weeks, we’re going to be happily flooded with students coming in, figuring out what this big building is and what we offer. So I’m really looking forward to it.
Dale: How do you explain it to new students? You probably get some group that understand it and like you say, just burst in and say give me access, but there’s others like, is this for me? I could imagine coming in from the dining hall and walking downstairs and seeing complex spaces and equipment that, it has to be a little intimidating to some people..
Andrea: It is, but I’ve been in makerspaces for almost a decade now, maybe longer if I actually really did the math. And what I’m starting to notice is there’s a lot of change in what the students have exposure to from YouTube and some of the content creators. And so it’s not as bizarre as it was a decade ago to say, ah, I don’t know what I’d do with a wood shop or a CNC lab or electronics, and now I think it’s totally different. I’m actually really surprised, doing some of the interviews with students, just how much training and exposure they have before they come here. So a lot of them are ready to go.
Dale: They’ve had access to some of this equipment, whether they’re in the community or in high school.
Andrea: And just general exposure, I think, which is really wonderful. But I think we’re in a really unique position. So even though the space is open and free for all to be here, in order to use the equipment, we’re asking that students attend a one-hour orientation and that I feel is really important because design innovation is much more than a tool, right? It’s a set of resources.
And so we have this beautiful opportunity to say, come on in. And if you want to use a 3d printer let’s sit down for an hour and talk about all the resources that we’re going to have available to you beyond just this printer. And if an hour from now, you say, oh, all I want is a 3d printer, you are absolutely welcome to come here. But it’s this wonderful opportunity for us to stop and really talk about design innovation as an initiative, which goes so much further than the set of tools that we’re offering here.
And I am really excited to see how students respond to that this fall.
J.R.: What Andrea just described, I think, is the perfect rationale for me in terms of how I think of making as a community activity. So one of the ways I described this process is that we’d like to educationally, what I want to do with DI is provide lots of on-ramps and off-ramps. And that’s also unique for students in that right now, if you’re a college student, might like my son’s starting here right now.
You come in and you meet with an advisor and they give you a four year plan. You gotta do this, and this to make it through your degree. And what we’re trying to do with this initiative is say, actually, while you’re here at this amazing university, take a look around and and explore some things.
And yeah, we want to make it possible for that student who just wants to chip in and learn a little bit about 3D printing and then go on their way. But we also want to hook them in a way that that gets them thinking about why. What we were able to establish, which is also unique is that we were able to launch a series of design innovation courses that are standalone courses open to any set of students. When they’re offered, they’re co-taught by faculty from different disciplines on different topics.
So I think seeing those things happening in the space. One of the things that’s not normally designed to actively into makerspaces, although it’s becoming more popular in academic contexts are the show and tell spaces, the gallery style. And although there’s always something to see in any given makerspace and there are a lot of stories behind it. We wanted to make that really intentional as well. And so I think part of what we’re trying to do in the building is make sure that were showing what’s going on as much as possible.
Dale: I always thought that was at the core of a makerspace is the fact that you saw work in progress or even completed work. Yep. It speaks to you in a different way.
J.R.: Yep, absolutely.
Dale: I think you were one of the few spaces that I know about that’s really coming at it predominantly from an art perspective or at least initially and connecting art and design. We’ll see engineering and connected design and more typically. The average artist’s studio was a makerspace. An artist is combining techniques and tools with imagination and ideas that that make that purposeful.
I think it’s just a wonderful and a particularly fashion here a different perspective than a lot of schools might have.
J.R.: Yeah, I think that’s, one of the things that drew me to Kent State and the fashion school was that coming from Glasgow School of Art, I was surrounded by creative colleagues and that was amazing. But as a designer and artist who was working with new technologies and thinking about how I can manipulate the chemical properties of the inks, or, the physical properties of machinery, et cetera, I needed access to engineers and others. And I think so that the scope of the larger university, but one where fashion is, the fashion school is one of the largest fashion schools in the U S at Kent State.
And so it does have a real presence here in the university community in a way that’s different than many. And also I think what we’ve found or what we’ve seen is that we draw in fact, in fashion, especially, but across our visual arts and design programs, we draw students who are very entrepreneurial in their approach to creative practice.
Dale: That’s a it’s a great thing and maybe, a hard thing to, to, talking to different folks from the Midwest, sometimes, people focus on what, where am I going to get a good job? They’re not necessarily thinking of creating that job.
And I think with a lot of these new areas, you need people that are willing to take the risks and step out and say I’m not entirely clear here, but I want topursue that.
J.R.: Yeah. In that particular school and the fashion school, we have the highest percentage of out of state or international students as a school at the university. And where the average probably across the university is maybe 70% of the students are coming from the state of Ohio. In the fashion school, it’s much less than half. It’s about 46%. And I think that that is part of what I think we’re trying to do with design innovation is draw students that we haven’t been capturing before and bringing them in a way that helps to facilitate that awareness for our Ohio students, as well as as others who were further afield.
What we’re trying to do here is really to think about how do we craft the future of American universities in an era in which we all know we’re going to have to change because our demographics are changing and our physical certain numbers of students are changing over the next 10, 15 years. What is it that defines us or gives students a real rationale for coming here to study? If you choose to come here, one of the reasons in the fashion school that we were able to recruit a lot of great students is that we’re one of the only places that they could come and have a great fashion education and be an athlete.
And most of our incoming students are “And” students.. They’re not just this one thing. I do this. And I think when we address those “And” spaces in their interests, we actually, we’re seeing them as a person as opposed to a degree program.
If you’re an English student, but you want to do woodworking, what can you do on campus? Before DI existed, there wouldn’t have been a way to explore that interest.
Dale: There’s also this hope that someone that’s in a sociology program or something else comes in and sees the technology could be part of that both that, that kind of life path but also intersecting with other disciplines.
J.R.: I think one of the things that we’re trying to get across is that Makerspace are critically important also in the context of social innovation, and non product oriented solutions. And I think that is something that everybody feels right now. And especially when we’re thinking about climate change and the state of the planet and other influencing factors.
But we haven’t really figured out how to address that educationally or institutionally. And I think that’s that’s something that’s tied to what we’re talking about as well. One of the things that’s at the core of design innovation is really helping people in teams to use the power of their diversity, to reframe the problem, to see it differently.
Because we need novel solutions. And when you’re doing that, and it’s tied to an artist like creative process you have to have access to the ability to make something tangible. So that everybody in that diverse team is like embedding the problem and seeing it from a different point of view.
One of the ways I think that going back to the artist thing is that we actually, most of us as artists, we glory in approaching our problems as novices in many cases like, like jumping into something that we have no idea whether we can actually make it happen. And that’s not a normal behavior for the average physics student.
But it could be, and it probably should be if they’re thinking about how they’re going to radically influence their field.
Dale: One of the key ideas is that almost a challenge yourself to learn something new, not knowing whether you’re good at it or whether the outcome is what you might expect.
There’s opportunity to learn like a language that other people use in a discipline and be able to talk about things, even though you might even be able to execute the way they do, you can talk to them about it and appreciate what they do.
Dale: You’ve mentioned this orientation that students go to. What does it look like? How do they acquire specific skill sets in your space? Are there workshops and things going on a lot in addition to the orientation?
Andrea: So the orientation is really just an introduction. It’s a tour of the facility. It’s pretty laid back. We make everyone do a Lego build to introduce themselves, to shake them up right when they walk in the space. But as students are currently revamping it with a slide show, which is absolutely wonderful, it has even a Lego countdown in numbers, which is pretty cool.
So that is really to introduce the initiative as a whole, to talk about the different nodes on campus, to be conscious of the ecosystem, the different programs that they can be a part of right now everything is pretty relaxed in terms of access to the space. So we have a little bit more of a take the orientation and then sign up for what machine you’d like. We kind of work with you one-on-one. Over time, I think we’ll add a little bit more formality to that with more formalized, organized courses and the workshops. I know students during COVID that were working here, spent a lot of their downtime, developing those workshops so that we could start them.
But the lack of formality really had a lot to do with the COVID year. So how do we not think about what I’m used to at makerspaces, which is you shove 20 people in a course on CNC and then give them a checkmark and say, you’re ready to go. But how do you instead look at that with a little bit more fluidity to say, okay, we have two students interested this week in CNC, how do we not put a gate in front of them and just allow them to start having those conversations?
And so I think we’ll stay pretty fluid this fall. And then as we start adding more students who can help build those courses, we’ll add a little bit more formality when it becomes important, or when we have a hundred students that want to learn CNC. So it’s quite different than a lot of the facilities I’ve been at and partially that’s due to last year and the struggles that we had in terms of spacing and distancing.
But I also think it’s a really great experiment to look at how we might be able to change things from a lot of those formal classes to have more of an open door, to let students come in.
J.R.: I should say to that, just to give you the picture, Andrea chose to work with us without ever having physically come to campus. That was at first the first part of her position actually started remotely, like many people over the last year and a half. But when she arrived she facilitated and reviewed 90 student applications to work on what we call the DI Crews, student employees. And ended up hiring 26.
And she trained each of those students in teams to begin the process, but they actually then were deployed by Andrea to develop tutorials for each of the machines in creative ways that would be accessible from their point of view. So I think there’s a wealth of resources that have been created thus far. And we’re, we’re just figuring out how to mix to deploy that in context with what Andrea just discussed.
Dale: Students are really one of the keys here are getting the sense of ownership of the space, the sense of pride in the space, a sense of welcoming in the space. It’s good to hear you develop the crew that’s trained to do that.
J.R.: Yeah, I think that was something that we both aligned really well on. And Andrea has deployed completely is that the we were in the same way they’ve described diversity in teams in a DI context, we really wanted to think about how we could pull students from any major on campus and get them up to speed where the community aspect of their involvement, and even as students who were responsible for helping to facilitate access to the space, they still needed to represent the culture that we were trying to create around DI.
Dale: I’m really anxious to see what kind of student projects develop in this first year. I’d love to see some of the projects that come out of your program this year and the diversity of student interests and problem solving.
J.R.: One of our DI fellows and DI crew members who just graduated this last year was back in the building today. He’s headed to a grad degree program in Michigan. And he had a great idea, which was based off of what they’re doing at their university library. They don’t charge the students to use the tools, but they require them to post a blog about what they’re doing.
That definitely got me thinking about how we might start a resource that would be a collaborative blog. In that context, it’s not just a social media post that like you were describing. It’s process. It’s thinking. It’s some photos and some examples and maybe it’s finished,
Dale: I appreciate your time today. I got to learn a good deal about your Design Innovation Hub. I’d love to stay in touch and hear more about it as it develops.
J.R.: Yeah happy to connect and and stay connected in that regard.
Wonderful. Thank you so much.
Kent State’s Design Innovation Hub website
Photos: Courtesy Kent State University