Management by ‘Minions’
A case study offers lessons from a busy maker space where students are not just users but co-owners, in charge of day-to-day operations.
By Jenni Buckley and Dustyn Roberts
Academic maker spaces, design centers, innovation institutes, and creativity labs of all kinds are becoming popular hubs of activity on many campuses, particularly within engineering colleges and departments. These spaces generally offer a physical location with fabrication resources and support for students to learn and work in a hands-on environment. However, they are more than just fabrication facilities because a key element of a maker space is the community itself. The people matter just as much as–or more than–the machines. A participatory culture that encourages informal interactions between the communities that the maker space serves is what distinguishes it from a facility used only for fabrication.
The Design Studio is a unique academic maker space in the University of Delaware Department of Mechanical Engineering that was designed, built, and maintained as a partnership between the undergraduate student body and the faculty. The space was created and is maintained under tight budgetary, staffing, and space constraints, all of which make student-faculty collaboration essential. Our experience is that members of a team of engaged students—affectionately called the “Minions”—are not merely the end-users of an academic maker space, but creators and co-owners, as well. We assert that a participatory culture should not just be encouraged after an academic maker space is constructed; it should drive the creation of the space itself.
In our case study, we provide an overview of the six-year evolution of the Design Studio from a small, grassroots effort by a team of committed student and faculty volunteers to a department-wide resource that is now utilized by 80 percent of all core undergraduate courses in our mechanical engineering program. We also present our ongoing challenges and lessons learned from relying heavily on Minion support to manage safety, inventory, and day-to-day operations of our heavily-used maker space. For instance, we found group messaging apps such as GroupMe and Slack to be particularly helpful in meeting staffing and restocking needs during high-use periods. This type of immediate all-group communication is a necessary supplement to the weekly meetings, detailed job descriptions, and work area checklists.
Student usage of the Design Studio is extraordinarily high, presenting challenges not only for staffing and supply management but also for safety and access. Eighty percent of all core undergraduate mechanical engineering courses and technical electives utilize the Design Studio’s resources in some fashion. Several courses are held entirely in the space, and all mechanical engineering undergraduates use it for at least one course per semester in each of their four years. In addition, student groups, including chapters of national organizations like the Society of Women Engineers and ASME, actively share the work space throughout the year. As a result, we have had situations where 500-plus unique student users may be simultaneously accessing the space for upwards of 100 different fabrication projects.
Core safety training and manufacturing competencies are carefully coordinated by faculty across six core courses to provide students with increasing levels of access and independence in using Design Studio equipment from their freshmen through junior years. By senior year, students have completed all necessary training and have “open access” to Design Studio resources for capstone projects. We use a combination of online and in-person training for fabrication equipment with high risk of personal injury, and the Minions are fully empowered to reinforce safety and usage rules as well as recommend retraining to student users.
As a student-centered design project, the Design Studio is inherently a work-in-progress. We are not prescribing that other institutions follow our exact pathway and policies, but our case study presents some recommendations that others may find useful. Among them: Involve students in decisions about the function of a particular space as well as work flow; start with the basics (hand tools, drills, an inexpensive 3-D printer), then grow in response to student demand as funding allows; provide open access to tools and materials; recruit and continuously communicate with a core group of undergraduate teaching assistants to maintain, stock, and monitor work areas; don’t assume undergraduate users who are not TAs will maintain and monitor the space; appoint faculty directors who teach core undergraduate courses; and use administrative and technical staff mainly for high-level safety and budgetary oversight.
While our short-term focus is on optimizing day-to-day operations, particularly safety, staffing, and inventory management, our longer-term objectives are to better support student entrepreneurs and leverage our collective experience to support nascent maker space efforts.
Jenni Buckley is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Delaware; Dustyn Roberts is a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering and applied mechanics at the University of Pennsylvania. This article is adapted from “Case Study: Maker Space Management by Minions,” in an upcoming issue of Advances in Engineering Education.
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