Douglas College Maker Lab allows students to experiment with 3-D printing

Makerspaces promote hands-on learning at postsecondary institutions

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      In New Westminster’s River Market, Cora Fanucchi pointed to three 3-D printers sitting on tables in a small room on the second floor.

      The student research assistant with the Digital Cultures Lab at Douglas College told the Georgia Straight that the Printrbot, Afinia, and MakerBot printers turn digital files into physical objects by depositing layer upon layer of molten plastic. For example, the MakerBot Replicator, the largest of the three machines, was used to print a model of a Tyrannosaurus rex skull.

      “As you can see, the prints that are produced with this are not only bigger, but they’re definitely better,” Fanucchi, who lives in Burnaby, said at the Douglas College Maker Lab (206A–810 Quayside Drive). “This is probably one of our best prints. It’s pretty amazing.”

      Located a few blocks south of the college’s New Westminster campus, the Maker Lab opened in 2014 opposite the Vancouver Circus School. As one of a dozen or so makerspaces in Metro Vancouver, it’s a “collaborative space that has machinery in it that allows you to play with technology, form unique partnerships, meet people, and gain experience”, according to David Wright, the coordinator of research and innovation at Douglas.

      The Maker Lab is overseen by members of the Digital Cultures Lab, which consists of a team of researchers exploring the use of digital media in education, and is available for use by Douglas students and staff. So far, it has hosted research projects and workshops on 3-D printing and infographics.

      Wright told the Straight that the 3-D printers have been used to reproduce a statue of assassinated U.S. president John F. Kennedy, Douglas Coupland’s Gumhead sculpture, cultural artifacts, and various “trinkets”.

      “We’ve done that primarily because we’re looking at: how do these machines work, what can they do, what’s reasonable, how long does it take?” Wright said by phone from Kitsilano.

      Wright noted the Maker Lab should prove useful to students in the college’s new engineering program, which starts up in September. Douglas is introducing a one-year engineering-foundations certificate and a two-year engineering-essentials diploma.

      “The idea behind this thing is to give students a space where they can experiment with these things, use them, and see how they work or don’t work, which is often the case,” Wright said.

      According to Wright, other colleges and universities would benefit from creating makerspaces and promoting hands-on learning.

      “But they should do their homework first around people like us, who are pretty much on the vanguard of this stuff,” Wright said. “I think that what we’re going to do in the next year is really look at ways in which the classroom can become a prototyping space. Right now, the classroom is really do-oriented rather than make-oriented.”

      A report released earlier this year by the Texas-based New Media Consortium identifies makerspaces as one of six “important developments in educational technology for higher education”, along with Bring Your Own Device, the “flipped classroom”, wearable technology, adaptive learning technologies, and the Internet of Things. The NMC Horizon Report: 2015 Higher Education Edition forecasts the widespread adoption of makerspaces by postsecondary institutions within two to three years.

      “Proponents of makerspaces for education highlight the benefit of engaging learners in creative, higher order problem solving through hands-on design, construction, and iteration,” the report states. “The question of how to renovate or repurpose classrooms to address the needs of the future is being answered through the concept of makerspaces, or workshops that offer tools and the learning experiences needed to help people carry out their ideas.”

      According to the report, makerspaces have popped up at NSCAD University in Halifax, Harvard University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California, among other places. It notes that makerspaces often have tools such as laser cutters, soldering irons, and Arduino and Raspberry Pi computers.

      “Whatever the supplies, the overarching goal of a makerspace is to be a place where people are free to experiment and make things, on their own, and as part of a productive community,” the report says.

      Back at the Douglas College Maker Lab, Fanucchi showed the Straight the rest of the makerspace’s equipment. The MakerBot Digitizer is a 3-D scanner that takes a physical object and makes a digital file that can be used to print replicas. There’s also a Parrot drone and an Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset.

      Fanucchi noted that, when she tells people she’s into 3-D printing, they are often surprised and enthusiastic. It took seven hours for the MakerBot Replicator to print her a penholder built out of digits representing the approximate value of pi, the mathematical constant.

      “I didn’t really know much about 3-D printing prior to this,” Fanucchi said. “I thought it would be a really great opportunity for me to learn, and it was. I’ve had so much fun doing it.”

      On September 17, the Digital Cultures Lab presents Building Better Boxes in a Culture of Innovation, an Innovation Series workshop on 3-D printing and other technologies, at the Anvil Centre (777 Columbia Street) in New Westminster.