Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts
Maker Feature

Making matters

Labs engage campus in creative hands-on learning, collaboration

WHALE LabLast semester, when William Cohen ’13 needed to tackle a term paper for his “Philosophy and Literature” course, he found help in an unexpected place—a box of Legos in the Wheaton Autonomous Learning Laboratory (WHALE Lab), courtesy of founder Professor Tom Armstrong.

“I spent a lot of time building things with Tom’s Legos,” says Cohen, who majored in English with a minor in studio art and computer science. “I find that focusing on some sort of immediate, often mechanical or tactile problem (such as building something with Legos), lets me work through larger, abstract problems. Some sort of organic problem solving happens when I’m otherwise occupied.”

Scattered about the WHALE research lab and FiberSpace, those Legos may seem like toys—well, they are—but they also are important brainteasers, notes Armstrong, assistant professor of computer science. “The goal is to create an environment of play and experimentation, to remind students, staff members and faculty that whimsy is important in fostering the joy of learning, and to encourage everyone to think differently about what ‘college’ is,” says Armstrong, who also founded FiberSpace.

College is not just about sitting in a classroom devouring knowledge; it’s also about the enjoyment of exploration, and about engaging the brain through as many varied experiences as possible.

WHALE LabTo ensure that all of this happens, Armstrong last year created the WHALE Lab and FiberSpace, located respectively on the first floor of the Mars Center for Science and Technology and second floor of the “old” science center. Both are “makerspaces,” research labs for making things. They are dedicated to engaging heads, hands and hearts in the creative process as a different approach to critical thinking and problem solving—not only for students, but also for faculty and staff members, and eventually the local community.

Makerspaces, also referred to as hackerspaces, date back to the mid-1990s and began in Germany, where a group of programmers started sharing a physical space, according to Make magazine. After a group of North American hackers visited Germany in 2007, the magazine notes, they brought the concept to the United States, where it has grown and diversified with the addition of electronic circuit design and manufacturing related to the initial focus on programming, and physical prototyping.

Makerspaces, some of them college-hosted, offer events, workshops and shared access to unique high-end manufacturing equipment, software and materials. Wheaton has one of the few such college-hosted spaces in New England.

The WHALE Lab and FiberSpace, which aims to fuse together the fiber arts and technology (think sewing a holiday sweater that lights up), are pure Wheaton. They create interdisciplinary spaces for students, faculty and staff members to exercise their passions for do-it-yourself projects in technology, engineering and crafts. Currently, a student and a faculty member are using the WHALE Lab to experiment with robotic technology as a research effort that will result in a senior honors thesis and a journal article. At the same time, a group of students, faculty and staff are organizing a workshop on creating three-dimensional artwork.

The labs defy easy categorization: academic work or recreational pursuits, science or art, faculty project or student endeavor? Rather, they are centers for intellectual exploration. The essence of a Wheaton education lies in crossing borders, just as the labs do.

650_Throwie SG7A5205Walk into the WHALE Lab on any given day and you will be intrigued by the visual explosion of stuff and activity—a bank of computer monitors transformed from trash to treasure by students and Professor Armstrong; a large table covered in laptops, chain mail handcrafted from fencing wire, giant balls of yarn and remnants of crochet projects; random electronic projects in various phases of development; a robot created by students that consists of a laptop placed on long metal legs; and several versions of Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker,” which have been designed using software and then “printed” out in plastic by the 3-D printer. (What? A printer that duplicates objects in plastic the way a copier duplicates images on paper?)

Collectively, this is all part of Professor Armstrong’s secret/not-so-secret mission to entice the every day person to be curious enough to come in and find out more, and the die-hard techies to work on projects that they are passionate about, in order to develop and nurture an interest in computational thinking across disciplines and beyond the population of students who are majoring in computer science.

The idea is that computational thinkingsolving problems applying concepts that are fundamental to computer science, like analyzing and organizing data, and identifying, testing and implementing possible solutions—is a core skill that everyone can use.

“Major or minor in computer science if you are passionate about it,” Armstrong says. “But in the world that we live in, I want you to be fluent in computation. That can come through participating in co-curricular workshops, assisting on projects, or trying your hand at ‘making.’ The importance of computational thinking for Wheaton graduates cannot be overstated.”

Wheaton College Professor Kathryn TomasekAssociate Professor of History Kathryn Tomasek, who also is an avid knitter, already is tapping into that idea by weaving connections between fiber arts and mathematics in her history classes. Last semester, she brought the students in her “Sex and Work” course, which focuses on gender issues in the labor force, to FiberSpace to teach knitting. Knitting is based on mathematics, she points out. In conjunction, Armstrong, whom Tomasek is teaching to knit, showed the students simple computer coding that could be applied to their fiber art.

The two professors have been collaborating to increase the comfort level with mathematics and computer science, particularly among young women. The effort is an important one considering the lack of gender diversity in the field of information technology. (See story on Wheaton alumnae working in technology, page 24.)

“One of the things that Tom is doing in his makerspaces is getting nontraditional populations into math and computer science,” says Tomasek. “With this particular FiberSpace project, my students learned this traditional craft, which is fun, and they are able to build something simple that involves circuitry and code into whatever fabric or object they choose. And that might move them toward being a little bit more comfortable with programming and things that can seem very intimidating.”

In addition to increasing the comfort level with electronics and programming, sharing knowledge is a central focus of the labs.

“I see peer-to-peer learning happening in the makerspaces daily—between students, alums and faculty,” says Armstrong. “That everyone brings skills to the table and everyone is a peer reinforces lifelong learning outside of the classroom. Everybody can be expert at something and share that with people. In WHALE, the sooner that we get to, ‘I don’t know,’ the more we all learn.”

Anyone who wants to learn how to do something—from knitting to designing and printing out 3-D game pieces—is encouraged to do so and to teach others how to do it. The equipment, tools and unique software are provided; users (tinkering mechanics, tailors, roboticists, designers, artists) bring the willingness to play, learn and share.

“At a residential liberal arts campus, this is how I want students to spend time when they’re not in classes, when they’re not studying, when they’re not eating, when they’re not sleeping. I’d rather have a student build a video game than buy a video game. I’d rather a student model and print out some sort of tool than download it from the Internet. I want them to see making as the manifestation of what we want Wheaton’s Connections curriculum to be.”

Both spaces have become popular gathering spots (where the bearded, ever-present Armstrong holds court daily) and the source of imaginative projects, from the practical (Zevi Rubin ’16 designed and fabricated a Rubik’s Cube–style puzzle with raised surfaces for blind people) to the out of this world (Ryan Farber ’15, a physics major, has proposed building a small satellite to launch into space).

Two years ago Armstrong began laying the foundation for these labs when he was seeking space for himself and his students to work on projects outside of the classroom. He initially carved out a little space in a spare storage closet and then found a little more room. And then, when the new Mars Center for Science and Technology was being planned, he advocated for the current spaces.

And yet, when you sit across from him in his office and ask him what his title is in relation to the spaces, he humbly shrugs. No fancy labels for him, he insists.

“I see my role as a community builder,” he says, “to bring people together across different constituency groups on campus. I’m mostly just the person who tries to get space, equipment, funding and resources for people who want to work on things, and then puts them in a room with other people who want to work on things, and then I get to see what happens.”

More online:

Visit the WHALE Lab to read about the latest events, research and projects, and watch a time-lapse video of the 3-D printer in action.

About Sandy Coleman

Sandy Coleman is the editor of the Wheaton Quarterly and Senior Associate Director in the Communications Office.