Makerspaces are becoming a fixture on college and university campuses. In fact, there are often multiple makerspaces on campus. At the University of Maryland, College Park, the growth of makerspaces followed a pattern I’ve seen elsewhere. Student-driven makerspace were started, often as clubs, and then professors started spaces with departmental funding, but now larger makerspaces are being built with funding from alumni, often tech entrepreneurs. They’ve become featured stops on the tours colleges give to prospective students.
In this episode, part of a series on campus makerspaces and the people who manage them, we talk with two people involved in makerspaces at the University of Maryland, College Park. Rick Blanton manages Terrapin Works at the Clark School of Engineering. Dr. Bill Pugh is a retired professor of computer science who established the Singh Family Sandbox makerspace in a new computer science building, built with a donation from the founders of Oculus.
With seven or more different makerspaces on University of Maryland campus, the Makerspace Initiative was formed to connect the different spaces and share knowledge about common practices as well provide standardized safety training that transfers with the student from one space to the next. This group also produced the 2021 Makerspace Impact Report, a great example of telling the story of how the makerspaces came to exist on campus and how they serve students, faculty and the mission of the university.
Bill: When I went touring looking at colleges with my older son who graduated in 2016, we didn’t see a lot of them. When I went touring with my younger son who graduated in 2019, pretty much every university we visited had a makerspace. It’s a lot more common at universities and when they have one, it goes on the university tour.
Dale: Over the last five to ten years, makerspaces have become a new kind of facility found on college and university campuses. Their growth has generally followed a pattern. Students first start independent maker spaces, which are like clubs. And then professors organize better spaces with departmental funding and the library starts a space as well. Eventually larger alumni funded makerspaces are introduced as distinct features of new buildings on campus that are tied to larger efforts to encourage students to become innovators.
In this episode, we’ll look at the University of Maryland College Park and its Makerspace Initiative. I talk with Rick Blanton who manages Terrapin Works, a makerspace affiliated with the School of Engineering and Dr. Bill Pugh, retired professor of computer science, who started the Sandbox, a makerspace inside a new computer science building, which was built with a large donation from the founders of Oculus.
Last year, the managers and leaders of the makerspaces formed the University of Maryland Makerspace Initiative and they produced the 2021 Makerspace Impact report, which is linked in the program notes. They began to view themselves as part of ecosystem connecting making, and doing on campus across different fields and disciplines.
Make in association with Newsweek recently released a listing of Best Maker Schools, which recognizes colleges and universities that have built makerspaces on campus and have provided students with access to the tools and materials for designing and making things.
Rick Blanton is the director of technical operations for the Clark School of Engineering. Tell us a bit about yourself.
Rick: My undergrad is in electrical engineering and I started my master’s in systems engineering. And then hopefully will be wrapping up in project management. And then that has a track for going on to PhD. But aside from that, I spent 14 years specializing in micro device manufacturing and specifically lasers, and UV lasers more specifically.
Dale: What is Terrapin Works?
Rick: Terrapin Works is a centralized resource for the College of Engineering, the James Clark College of Engineering.
We currently have 17 labs in our ecosystem and it covers about 28,000 square feet of fabrication space. And we have a full-time staff of five right now with several contractors on top of that. And then you got 70 to a hundred students on top of that. So we’ll train them up, essentially to get them to be subject matter experts on operation, maintenance and running projects and stuff.
You needed to create ecosystems of equipment so that you could span all of the manufacturing requirements for any skill level. So you want to be able to bring someone in at a consumer grade, MakerBot or a Prusa that are like your entry-level added manufacturing capability or even earlier with some basic types of rapid prototyping and whether it’s like your toothpicks and your styrofoam and stuff like that.
Dale: What is the Makerspace Initiative at the University of Maryland?
Rick: So the Makerspace Initiative essentially is a meta- organization. Typically each department has a makerspace or two and then you have a couple stray ones but bring all that leadership together into the same room. Because at the end of the day what it comes down to is the student experience, faculty experiences, where if you have wildly different requirements for gaining entry to a space or different rules or cost structures and stuff like that, it just makes it very confusing.
And what we want to do is be a good advocates for the maker movement. And so lowering those barriers of entry for people to start making as easily as possible and with the least amount of bureaucratic hoops they have to jump through, the better it is. And also just normalizing, safety and expectations.
Dale: This kind of grew from a realization that at the University of Maryland, you don’t have just one makerspace, you have many, and you have them outside of engineering and STEM fields. You have them in theater department for instance.
Rick: Of course,
Dale: To build sets and do all kinds of things with light and sound.
Rick: Yeah, the the Clarice Scene Shop is one of those spaces. And they do absolutely spectacular, amazing work. And it was really eye opening for some of the engineering students to be able to go over and see the complexity of stuff, because they’re engineers, they have this preconceived idea of what, what everything is, but then you see what they’re doing over there, it’s just absolutely crazy. But the MSI came together because of this recognition and really the driving force that pulled it all together was Professor Emeritus Bill Pugh. He was advocating for makerspace coming out of the computer science department. And he had one that was started up called Sandbox.
Dale: Let me welcome Bill Pugh.
Bill: I’m a retired professor of computer science, started at the university of Maryland back in 1988.
Actually in between undergrad and grad school, I worked for Texas instruments for three years. And so that perhaps had a little bit more practical bent than some of the people in grad school who went straight from undergrad to grad. Then I had a pretty successful career as a professor, did really good high-impact research in a couple of different areas.
A lot of times I found that my research interests made me want to resolve not only the interesting academic challenges, but what’s actually required for this to be useful in practice. And those elements weren’t always things that were publishable but I felt they were important.
I spent a number of summers in sabbatical years out on the West Coast. Cause it was summer of 2000. I worked for Google. And Google had only about 150 employees. I’d known Sergei Brin when he was an undergraduate at Maryland.
Dale: Tell me how and why you started the Sandbox at University of Maryland in the Computer Science Department.
Bill: Okay I’ll give you a little bit of my history of involvement with making activities. I was doing this stuff when I was in high school. Not only wire- wrapping boards, but I actually, in my high school, they had a little theatrical production of Star Wars and I did the scrolling text in the beginning. Did that on an electronics plotter. I built a little robot that was R2D2. And so forth, but then I didn’t really get into making too much for a little while. But then over summer spent on the Bay Area and so forth, started to attend Maker Faire. I went to the Crucible, took a class there in how to eat fire.
One of the first things I did when I retired from my faculty position, was suddenly the academic school year and Burning Man no longer conflicted. I started going to Burning Man. And after my first year, I became involved with a number of art projects there in doing technically the tech heavy side of the art projects.
I really enjoyed doing that. I was having a lot of fun with this. And then one of our alumni was to coming back to campus. And he was going to be the keynote speaker at our first big campus hackathon. And he said I was one of the people he wanted to see because I had talked to him about his startup idea back when he was an undergraduate. About two weeks before he comes to campus, it was announced that Facebook was buying Brendan Iribe’s company, Oculus for $2 billion, actually turned out it was 3 billion. And while he was on campus, he said, you guys could use a new building. I talked with various people in department and I helped put together the initial plan to take to Brendan. And I took some of my own interests, but I also thought what would appeal to Michael and his co-founders at Oculus.
I know that the way Oculus is, it was, it’s all makerspace. They have robots, they have 3d printers, particularly in the early days. Look at the early days of Oculus, it was like a makerspace in there. And Brendan came as part of being keynote speaker for big hackathon. And I saw how excited he was by interacting with the students there.
And the initial pitch to Brendan Iribe was an addition to all the things that we were going to have in the Iribe Center on campus, new classrooms, new offices, new research labs, that it was also going to contain a large makerspace for student directed projects, where our students would have a Makerspace where they could work on projects without having to be supervised or have a project designed by a faculty member, classwork. It’s just doing whatever you want.
That, in the pitch that very much appealed to him. And as I started going out and talking to some other alumni about the building, they were all very enthusiastic about this. So this became a key part of the design for the Iribe Center. And so we knew that doing a big makerspace was going to be a significant challenge that we couldn’t just design the space without any preparation, just go into it.
So we did a couple of things. There were already some student makerspaces on campus that were purely student organized, but we decided we were actually going to take some departmental funds and so forth and build a small maker space to start doing it in a place next to the computer science building.
And also one of the things I found and I believe I heard Marty Culpepper talking at Maker Faire about the makerspace initiative at MIT and about the International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces, which I was very enthusiastic to. And I went to, I believe you were at the first one.
Bill: And I’m not sure if at the first one I had people from other maker spaces on campus going. But certainly by the second one, I was starting to find out who the other people were. And we had people from at least not only Sandbox, but at least two other makerspaces on campus going to ISAM.
And we could see that what they were doing with coordinating all the different things with makerspace. And we kept on talking about, oh, this would be really good. We should do more of this. The problem is finding actually the resources, the motivation to get all of this collaboration between makerspaces.
So yeah, that continued for a little while. I went around and toured all the other makerspaces on campus. Probably not all of them. Engineering has a huge number of makerspaces, but architecture has one, but the theater department, they have a costume shop, a prop shop, a scene shop. And some of those are amazing, and go to the costume shop and they have some people who’ve been doing this for a long time. They have all sorts of sewing machines and so forth, but I talked to them and one of the people up there who I met in the costume shop when I was getting the tour was a computer science student.
The costume shop not only do all this sewing and so forth, but sometimes people want to integrate electronics or they talk about, they need to create armor for, some sort of play where everybody’s wearing armor. So they’re vacuum forming armor. And the facilities that they have in their scene shop and prop shop, they have big equipment. And so wanting to intermingle this, the whole thing about there’s the whole point in having these people separately develop teaching programs for using laser cutters and getting certified in one makerspace and having that not transport to the other one is a big thing. But the other thing that I think was really key to this was one of the things I saw that was happening in the makerspace and one of the things I really wanted to have happen in Sandbox, and I saw in Sandbox ,is that it wasn’t just the traditional computer science students, the hardcore, the people who started programming in high school and have been doing all that and can be fascinated by a program that does nothing but write out stuff to standard output.
And in Sandbox, we had people who are art students, and even in the original Sandbox, art students, architectural students. So it’s a good way to get a diverse community of people working together. And if we have just the engineering makerspace and the art makerspace and the architecture and computer science, you don’t get as much possibility for mixing as
Dale: So in addition to starting Sandbox, Bill Pugh wanted to make sure that the makerspaces on campus were connected to each other and it became Rick’s project to reach out and get others involved to meet regularly and share information.
Rick: We had to be able to come up with incentives for people to want to join. And for the most part one was, the collective knowledge sharing being able to have access to that so that you can ask someone, a colleague questions, number two, the other thing was for the most part it’s navigating regulatory bodies.
Some of the most expensive things that makerspaces have to do is create their standard operating procedures, their work orders, their safety policies, all that stuff, because that’s typically has to be done by someone who knows what they’re doing. And so that’s going to be some of your full-time employees, some of your most expensive people on a dollar per hour basis.
And so what we’ve been able to do is leverage the existing spaces like Terrapin Works and some of the others on campus who have already gone through this and already had all of their documentation approved. And then that becomes something that can be shared out.
Dale: If you have a student who’s trained or certified in whatever level in safety, it’s your space Terrapin Works and they go to another makerspace, how do they recognize it?
Rick: That is exactly the point of that. That’s one of the biggest drives that we have. There’s the starting point is just safety, right? You can come together collectively and agree. What are the minimum requirements for safety coming into a space? And once you’re able to get everybody to the table and say, okay, this is what we agree on. Then we can start creating that centralized resource, and then adding others as it makes sense where we find those overlaps because the overlaps get teased out during the conversation
Dale: Sometimes it’s making explicit the rules that are operating within a space.
Rick: We’ve been very lucky that the regulatory bodies on campus, our environmental safety and our fire marshall have been true partners in this endeavor. A lot of people are afraid when they first start up their makerspaces are looking into this, there’ll be an adversarial relationship. But we are very proactive in the beginning and engaged with them early. And they appreciated that to the point that they’ve been willing to work with us to try to find ways to make it work and while still maintaining a high level of safety.
Dale: Was it hard to get the makerspaces to cooperate? Was there a sense of territory or protectiveness of one space versus another?
Rick: To a certain extent, the first part was easy to get them all in the room. Cause I just offered lunch every time we met. But beyond that, it is difficult. Typically the people who are running these spaces are very dedicated. This is their life and they have made this thing in their vision. And there’s a lot of emotional attachment to how they have everything set up.
Again it’s a volunteer army, so we don’t dictate anything. What we instead try to do is say that, look at the end of the day, we don’t want all of the makerspaces to be homogenous. You don’t want everybody to be the same, right? Because what you want to be able to do is say, okay, we’re going to address the things where we have that common overlap and that will allow us to be able to spend more time focusing on the things that make our spaces unique.
And so the English department has printing presses, old Gutenberg designs and stuff like that. They have like new media for creating books and stuff like that. They use additive manufacturing to be able to create new letter types and stuff. And, that’s those quirks and features that really make those spaces unique. We want to allow them to be able to. Go more in that direction.
You don’t want to have everybody have to rehash the same thing. Here’s the 3d printer and here’s how you slice it. We can simplify that part of it and let you focus on the things that make you really special.
It’s really the idea that many fields benefit from having a shop right of just their tools. And, but what strikes me is that there’s the know-how there too. There’s the people that when you talk typefaces, someone can show you how to do that. It’s a very different learning experience than just reading about it.
I’ve always been a really big advocate for this interdisciplinary approach and that commingling of different disciplines, just because, Yeah, I saw it a lot when I was working with medical devices and I would work with doctors and like I had the technical know-how to be able to make whatever they wanted. But I didn’t know what their problems were. I didn’t know what issues they were facing on a daily basis. And but they didn’t know that I had the knowledge to be able to make anything that they could come up with. And so once we came into the same room, all you had to tell me was what was wrong and I could figure something out.
Dale: That’s a great point. One of the roles that I’ve seen of makerspaces on college campuses is to promote that interdisciplinary connection and learning so that a medical student and a business student and an engineering student come together and they all figure out the pieces that they need to create something. When they’re all in their own silos that doesn’t happen. It would be interesting to think about how do you promote that? Because it’s hard enough sometimes even within a maker space for people to know what projects are going on there, what students are doing, what the community is doing in another space.
But if there was greater awareness, people might link up to projects and mentor or provide some service or really get involved if they knew about that.
Rick: That actually touches with some of the initiatives that we’re trying to get kick-started, which is a real focus on creating catalogs of workshops that allow near-peer mentoring.
It’s one thing to have a lecturer come up and, show you something, or even the old model of a workshop where you have everybody’s doing step one at the same time or step two. What we’ve been able to find and which reinforces information that we found at ISAM a couple of years back, which was that for workshops, it’s actually beneficial to run a workshop in a way where you have a catalog of potential projects that span different skillsets, beginner, intermediate, advanced, and you have everybody all in the room and the instructor for lack of a better term is just floating around, providing essentially office hours. But it’s guided assistance.
And what you can do at that point, or what we’re hoping that we’ll see is a cross-pollination that the students who are working at different levels will be able to help with each other and start those conversations where you have that opportunity for mixing of different disciplines. We’ve also seen on the University of Maryland campus, we also have a very strong entrepreneurial I want to say sentiment or support from both administration and from student groups. And so going so far as to even have like student incubators, like the startup shell and their whole goal is to facilitate those interactions. They will have a space. And then startup shell specifically has an open space where you can get multiple startup companies that are working on their things and, at their space, but it’s just Hey, does anybody actually know any lawyers? And they can just pick their head up and say it out loud. And they immediately can get feedback and help. They also have social media and their own Slack channels and stuff like that to be able to further facilitate that support for each other.
Dale: So you recently published the 2021 Makerspace Impact Report, which is about a 50 page PDF document. That’s quite detailed. It’s a very nice report. I encourage people to check it out. It’s a sort of a reveal of what’s going on in these makerspaces and making sure that perhaps people in administration that would never walk into a makerspace can at least look at this and try to understand and get their head around it.
Rick: That was a collaboration effort of all the spaces on campus. That was one of the requested deliverables by Dr. Pugh. I don’t want anybody listening to be terrified of a 50-page read.
The first half of it is laying the groundwork for what we’ve done in the past and how we got here. Future iterations are really expected to be significantly less because it’s just going to be covering the last year’s efforts.
Dale: So you can recognize that you have lots of students using these spaces, but you also recognize that there’s quite a few students that know nothing about them and don’t walk in and wonder what they could do there.
Rick: Yeah. The we’re we are by no means thinking that we’ve tapped everybody. We actually had a class that within the engineering school had done surveys of students asking if they had done anything makerspace related on campus. It was an engineering class, but it was it did span out.
And they were asking the roommates and stuff like that. The sad but funny part was that even of the engineering students, it was only like 60% of engineering students said that they had done anything makerspace related. And these were all like seniors that were in the survey and everyone’s 100- level engineering class has them using a MakerBot and it is in a makerspace. There’s a hundred percent coverage there and all, and 40% of them didn’t even recognize that was a thing that had happened. So when you take that into consideration, there’s a branding issue. There’s an image issue. It gives us an understanding of how much work is left to be done.
Dale: The President of the university is a former Dean of the Engineering Department. He’s pretty supportive of makerspaces throughout the campus.
Rick: Dr. Pines, President Pines. I’m a big fan of, and he has been a diehard supporter. He is the one that actually allowed my organization to be created in the first place. He supported our operations. So he has been a true supporter of makerspaces and making activities on campus.
Dale: Can you articulate why he has expressed that he sees these spaces as valuable to the campus and to the student?
Rick: President Pines has stated that he is a true fan of having students “do”. It’s one thing to learn in your classes your first principles, right? Your theories of how things work. But actually being an engineer where you have to convert that into something functional and make something. That’s a recognized deficiency that I think that everyone understands in engineering.
If you hire an engineer as a fresh grad, there’s typically a six to 18 month delay while they come up to speed with modern practices. So at the end of the day President Pines has been a huge advocate for student competition and for makerspaces because it allows an opportunity for the student to feel as close to real world pressures as they will, once they graduate and giving them more of those opportunities is only beneficial.
Dale: Bill saw that the makerspace gave students the opportunity to do projects they are passionate about.
Bill: One of the interesting challenges when you become a professor is that you don’t have a boss giving you deadlines. You have to find your own projects that you’re passionate about and pour yourself into those. And it’s the same thing in my own research projects that they were all things I was passionate about and so forth. And like the Burning Man projects, those can be a lot of work. You’ve gotta be passionate about those. And I think it’s the same thing for students. That finding something that excites the passion, it’s hard. Occasionally you find a case where you can devise a programming project for a course that students become passionate about, that they do it and they pass all the tests and then they want to extend it. This is cool. They want to show it to their friends. It’s rare. You love it when you come up with a project like that.
Some of them, like one of the projects I’ve done a number of times is a Markoff text generation program. This was before all the neural net versions where you just doing the things to do like word prediction, and then you can feed it in Shakespeare and then it can start generating Shakespeare- like texts. That was one of the things students had fun with.
Self-directed projects that not only are they responsible for the direction, but they only do the ones that motivate them because there’s nobody else telling them to do it. And there’s something about being self-motivated that is really helpful.
Dale: I asked Bill to talk about the pattern of makerspaces, starting as student driven spaces to more officially supported spaces.
Bill: You need a couple of different things. You need to have some students who are, typically before there’s a makerspace you need to have some students who are getting passionate about this, but thing is as if it’s just student-driven, it’s hard to really make the headway at a university. And sometimes they’ll say okay, here’s a whole old room we’re not using, you can have that. But to really get to the sort of self-sustaining level, you need some champion to step in and do that. And typically that, it has to be somebody in the university hierarchy, perhaps augmented with an outside funder who wants to create it. Oftentimes, somebody in a department, a dean, a president, who sees the possibility there. Sometimes it’s a reach-out finding alumni or somebody who wants to fund something.
I also talk to my old high school and helped create a makerspace there. And what I think is happening is they had a teacher there who was passionate about makerspaces, and he didn’t have a lot of resources and so forth. They had students, but then we were able to find some more resources for him and so forth, and it’s become a much bigger thing.
And students are important, but you also need to have a visionary who can figure out how to control the levers of power within the institution.
Dale: Let me ask you maybe as a closing question, what happened during the pandemic across University of Maryland and what do you think you learned from that, that will maybe help point towards the future of the makerspaces on campus.
Rick: So let me plug the impact report again real quick, because we go in depth into that. It was actually a very turbulent time. It was second week of March when the numbers got bad enough that we that we realized the writing was on the wall and we shut it all down.
Now makerspaces across campus all closed. There was really only a handful, like two to three that were able to stay open and with Terrapin Works being one of them. And the only reason that we were able to do that was because we fell under the research guidelines instead of like libraries or English or someone else. And so because research labs were able to to limp along, we were able to do the same. We lost all of our student staff and were operating purely off of a handful of full-timers that were going in every single day. And during that time It was incredibly stressful. It was incredibly emotionally draining just to, because we had we recognize that the PPE shortage and we realized that we have on campus on the order of about 150 to 200 3d printers. And within the college of engineering we have about a hundred and we were able to make the pivot and start pumping out PPE as quickly as possible.
A lot of time was spent sourcing materials. That, that was all a major concern, but we were trying to get it out to the hospitals and doctors. It was really emotionally draining and difficult because you would have people emailing, you get a half a dozen to a dozen emails, every single day — my parents are going to die or my grandparents are going to die if we don’t get this, that type of stuff.
That’s not something that we typically deal with. So that was a rude awakening. We made sure to keep a good eye on staff. And as they were getting close to burning out, we would cycle them out.
Dale: You’re filling a need for the community, not just the campus here and often a lot of the work people do, you don’t see where it goes. You don’t see it in the hands of real people and it must have been quite a an amazing experience.
Rick: It was, the sheer gratitude, the happiness that, that people would have, we produce several thousand pieces of PPE, and we were able to hand those off to first responders, medical, children’s hospital, MedStar medical and then several food distribution centers and stuff like that.
And everybody was so supportive and they were happy to have it. It was really enriching work. Being able to know that you were making a difference on a daily basis that. Your point is, usually you’re several steps removed from that as an engineer and having that opportunity to be able to see that was really satisfying.
But, at the end of the day, we saw it as a little bit of a missed opportunity. When you look at like a positive impact, we were able to generate numerous news interviews and news articles and from just the work that we did in the College of Engineering not only producing PPE, but then we had other labs who were producing hand sanitizer and other things. And those types of things, that was a real boom. We were able to create a website that just highlighted COVID-19 responses and, but all of the other makerspaces had pretty much shut down.
And when you talk about the total production capability of the university we had nerfed it and we could have had that much more impact. Going forward, I think that my, my biggest hope is that Administrations across the country, not just for the University of Maryland, but just, the universities around the country recognize that makerspaces are a critical resource for manufacturing.
We all know that, with the way things are going, that globalization and everything, you’re going to have these types of events happen more often. In these types of situations, we need to be aware of what resources are available to be able to fill those critical gaps in logistics and the Makerspace and the maker community is there and willing to step up and try to help any way they can.
Dale: Yeah, that’s great. I think so. It’s it’s not just a place where people do experimental work. They can also be, if the moment demands, they can do really useful things. And even it’s probably a shame that the students were away as well. Cause I think they could have been big contributors to solving these problems as well.
Rick: They could have. My ultimate job is to make sure that the students are safe and that they are able to go home after learning their lessons.
In that sense, everybody that was coming onto campus knew exactly what they were signing up for.
Dale: Now in the fall you’ll have students back, spaces will be open. And do you expect to just get back to where you were and pick it up again?
Rick: For the most part. Yeah, actually, to a certain extent we’ve already opened up all the way and we’ve seen a huge influx of additional users. One of our core philosophies is to, make sure that you gain something out of every situation.
And during everything over the last 18 months, we’ve really worked a lot on trying to revitalize our workshops and make it hybrid capable. So you have those for both virtual and in-person. And we wanted to really make sure that there was opportunities for us to reach as many people as possible and democratize that knowledge as much as possible.
So we’re really hoping that with these expanded programs, we’ll be able to reach more people and give them those critical maker skills that I think everybody should have.