Innovative Tinkering

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Innovative Tinkering

Getting to Know UNC’s Makerspace

By: Tom Griffen 


UNC has got its finger on the pulse of contemporary innovation. And sure, you already knew this, but did you know they have a dedicated space in Murray Hall where tomorrow’s ideas are being invented, designed, and prototyped by today’s students?

 It’s called the UNC Makerspace.

I can’t lie, I had no idea what a “maker” was until I visited Sam Petrie, the executive co-chair of the Makerspace. Sam is a computer science major from Zionsville, Indiana. In her middle school years, she was that kid who created spreadsheets ranking her collegiate aspirations. Back then, UNC was always at the top of her list, though mainly because Carolina blue was her favorite color. Eventually a research scholarship made Sam a Tar Heel, and now she’s an active player in the entrepreneurial and innovation networks. Which is exactly what brought her to the Makerspace.

Sam explained that the word “maker” is a trending buzzword. It’s popping up in all sorts of professions, yet always refers to someone who enjoys the prospect of creating new machines and contraptions, or tinkering with old ones. And though the maker culture is usually associated with technology and engineering-oriented pursuits, it’s relevant to any field.

At first glance, UNC’s expansive Makerspace looks like a fancy lab. Ceiling to floor glass windows, aquarium-like, look into a well-lighted room lined with wide tables and plenty of freedom for movement. Its myriad tools and equipment, including sewing machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, and standard workshop tools give it a certain feel. Something like potential.

The Makerspace is a place where students can create, troubleshoot, and figure out solutions to puzzles of all sorts. They can design with abandon, engage without guidelines, invent new-fangled things, and implement their own unique ideas. It’s a space that’s meant to encourage students to take control of their ingenuity.

“In so many cases,” Sam says, “creativity gets sucked out of us through the years. But it’s still there.”

The Makerspace houses a biannual grant-funded session led by its Maker-in-Residence, currently Dr. Forrest Greenslade, wherein students vie for an opportunity to become a campus maker. This fall, 70 people applied for 12 spots in their second cohort. Those accepted represented a wide variety of campus majors: environmental studies, drama, political science, biology, and art. 

Under the guidance of Dr. Greenslade, the cohort created a project linked to the current campus theme—Food for All. The makers built artistic bee’s “nests”—a two-fold venture that served both as an aesthetically pleasing interpretation of Greenslade’s original idea and as a place for native honey bees to hive around campus.

“These projects go beyond art,” Sam says. “They have a deeper meaning.”

But use of the Makerspace is not limited to cohorts. While certain classes and clubs encourage members to take advantage of the resources, anyone can walk right in and get to tinkering after a brief training and orientation.  

“We’re doing everything we can,” Sam says, “to introduce the space to students who wouldn’t use it or even find it on their own.”

According to Sam, the benefits of the Makerspace transcend individual projects. The less-tangible gains come from critical thinking and problem-solving. Practical applications go beyond areas of science and math, and far exceed what might be mistaken for arts and crafts or some sort of branch of the do-it-yourself movement. 

For her Intro to Entrepreneurship class, Sam has to create an practical device based in technology. Something that can be held—not a smartphone app or a sort of software. She’s settled on a gadget that attaches to a shopping cart. One that manages basic store navigation and allows for self-checkout.

She built her project in the Makerspace. And just like everything pioneered in the innovative workshop, it just may be the next big thing.