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Beyond Textbooks: High-tech Tools Help Students Build, Create

From robot parts to works of art, maker spaces across the Forty Acres are inspiring students. Check out where students are bringing their ideas to life.

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Innovation at UT


This story is part of our “Eyes on Innovation” series, which explores UT’s world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.

Mackenzie Love saw his mother’s frustrations when her cell phone wouldn’t fit comfortably on her nightstand. With Christmas approaching, he went to the Longhorn Maker Studio with plans for the perfect gift in hand.

In the studio, Love, a mechanical engineering freshman from Waco, designed and then used a 3-D printer to build a custom phone holder.

“She was ecstatic,” Love says of his mother’s response. “The first thing I did was take other people’s designs and learn how to use these printers. But after I got accustomed to it, I started designing my own and printing my own work, like the phone holder.”

Across campus, students like Love are using maker spaces filled with cutting-edge technology to build, create and invent for class assignments and personal education. These maker spaces inspire students, expand courses, provide hands-on learning opportunities and spur both innovation and entrepreneurship.

The university has “championed a ‘Maker culture’ for more than three decades” and continues to make significant investments in maker spaces while “developing 21st century tools that empower student entrepreneurs and propel the Maker Movement,” executive vice president and provost Gregory L. Fenves wrote in a June 2014 letter to President Barack Obama.

“Across UT Austin, students have become passionate participants in the Maker Movement, and faculty, researchers and industry partners have established Texas as a destination for innovation and entrepreneurship,” Fenves wrote to Obama. “We look forward to continuing to play an integral part in the manufacturing economy by inspiring and educating the next generation of Makers.”

From art to engineering, these five maker spaces help carry out the university’s commitment to creating, building and inventing.

[Providing students and faculty with cutting-edge tools and top-notch maker spaces is only one way The University of Texas at Austin is at the forefront of higher education. Check out these Five UT Programs Changing Education.]

Longhorn Maker Studio

Longhorn Maker Studio

Students in the Cockrell School of Engineering use the Longhorn Maker Studio at its grand opening during the fall 2014 semester. Photo courtesy of the Cockrell School of Engineering. 

What is it?

The Longhorn Maker Studio, housed in the Cockrell School of Engineering‘s Mechanical Engineering Department, opened in September, and about 2,500 students in eight courses have already used its 3-D printers, laser cutters and other tools.

“Our goal is really hands on. We want people to make things for themselves,” says Desiderio Kovar, a mechanical engineering professor and faculty director of the Longhorn Maker Studio. “It’s really a better way to teach. Rather than lecturing on some theoretical topic, now we start with a problem, and then you can work in the theory.”

Tell me more

Kovar says the Longhorn Maker Studio not only allows students to learn how to use machines that will be part of their experience after graduation, it also enables students to complete some projects in hours rather than weeks. In turn, students are using the saved time to add new levels of detail, he says.

Kovar says students in a robotics class used the studio’s resources to build parts for robots that can slice the crust off a piece of toast, sort coins in a piggy bank and even walk like a human.

Wesley Hejl, a biomedical engineering senior, says he went to the Longhorn Maker Studio to print a model of a human heart. He is an intern at the Seton Heart Specialty Care and Transplant Center and says the model “gives patients something to hold and look at” when talking with doctors.

“In the classroom setting, you learn a lot about how things work and the theory behind things,” Hejl says. “But for engineering, you want to make and build something. The maker studio supplies a lot of great tools to do that. It gives you experience solving problems with hands-on situations.”

[In the mid-1980s, faculty members at UT Austin invented one of the first types of 3D printing and manufacturing, called Selective Laser Sintering, or SLS. Learn more about that process and other Great UT Ideas.]

Digital Fabrication Lab

Digital Fabrication Lab

Aaron Meyers, a master of fine arts candidate in the Studio Art program’s sculpture and extended media area of study, uses the Digital Fabrication Lab to create an array of artwork. This piece, “Big Wheel” is made of printed plastic, aluminum, acrylic, steel and concrete. Photo by Meyers. 

What is it?

Launched in the spring of 2014, the Digital Fabrication Lab provides undergraduate and graduate students in the Department of Art and Art History in the College of Fine Arts with tools to find inspiration and create art in all types of media.

“This is the leading edge of fabrication techniques in many disciplines but especially in the creative fields,” says Jack Risley, chair of the Department of Art and Art History. “It’s important our students not only have access to but also a familiarity with these techniques. These tools are becoming ubiquitous and will be part of the landscape of our students’ lives and professional careers.”

Tell me more

R. Eric McMaster, a lecturer in the Department of Art and Art History and manager of the Digital Fabrication Lab, says about 200 students from 10 courses use the lab for classwork each semester.

McMaster says both Studio and Design students create art and products using the 3-D printers and scanners, CNC routers and other machines. The lab, he says, supplements coursework and studio practice while making work more efficient and detailed, giving students “new ways of working.”

“We have graduate students using the lab in a more independent fashion, using the machines to work toward their thesis,” McMaster says. “And then we have freshmen coming for a class assignment to get them used to how the machines work.”

Aaron Meyers, a master of fine arts candidate in the Studio Art program’s sculpture and extended media area of study, says he uses the Digital Fabrication Lab to create an array of art, from building proportionally scaled models to 3-D printed hamster wheels.

“Not only do the tools I have access to change how I solve problems, but they also change how I perceive them,” Meyers says. “The Digital Fabrication Lab has been extremely generative for me because it has changed how I look at things.”

WorkLAB Satellites

WorkLAB Satellites at Blanton Museum of Art

Visitors to the Blanton Museum of Art use mobile workstations, called WorkLAB Satellites, to create art and find inspiration. Photo courtesy of the Blanton Museum of Art. 

What is it?

The WorkLAB Satellites are mobile workstations incorporated into the Blanton Museum of Art. The workstations give visitors a chance to find inspiration in the museum and then create art.

“Traditionally a viewer walks through galleries and museums, at a slow pace, to stop and engage with the art. But WorkLAB Satellites offers a point of refuge where one can spend time and interact,” says Leslie Mutchler, the artist who designed the WorkLAB Satellites. “Satellites is designed so that someone with a strong arts background won’t be bored by the materials and prompts, and also for the non-artist to come and feel comfortable making and exploring.”

Tell me more

More than 6,000 museum visitors used the WorkLAB Satellites to create art this summer. The blank-slate approach invites visitors to find a deeper understanding of the art they see in the museum while challenging themselves to create art of their own.

Simple instructions in English and Spanish help visitors create paper sculpture, make collages, weave and work with everyday materials like tape, paper, pencils, stencils and chipboard.

The WorkLAB Satellites often function independently, but the spaces sometimes supplement and connect to exhibitions, like with the upcoming “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” show. During the James Drake exhibit, “Anatomy of Drawing and Space,” or “Brain Trash,” museumgoers gained new understanding of the art by using paper, stencils and collage materials to create pieces with similar colors and subjects to Drake’s work.

The satellite workstations supplement the Blanton’s WorkLab program, a series of open studio experiences for children and families. Mutchler created the stations, which are themselves discrete works of art, using tools in the Department of Art and Art History’s Digital Fabrication Lab.

“This isn’t a craft station. This is an art-making space,” says Monique O’Neil, a museum educator who oversees family and community programs at the Blanton. “You can understand the process and technique and be inspired by the precious works of art around you.”

[Maker spaces across The University of Texas Austin’s campus help students and faculty create art, learn new skills and even fine-tune inventions. See how the university’s Inventors of the Year are transforming the medical field.]

School of Architecture

School of Architecture

Students in the School of architecture used the Vertical Design Studio to create models of a primary school in Africa. Photo by William Niendorff. 

What is it?

Students in the School of Architecture use many of the same tools founds in maker spaces across campus like CNC routers, laser cutters and 3-D printers and scanners to prototype, model and build class assignments.

“Making creates better designers,” says Eric Hepburn, the School of Architecture’s information technology director who also manages the school’s digital fabrication efforts. “Having access to these tools lets students engage with real materials, take on real projects and make real things.”

Tell me more

Though the School of Architecture doesn’t have a single workspace labeled as a maker space, several labs across the school provide students with the same learning opportunities as the dedicated maker spaces elsewhere on campus.

Hepburn says the school’s faculty realized in the 1970s that students learn best with more than just the traditional architectural drawings and decided to begin using different materials to build models with wood-shop tools.

By the 2000s, the school began training students to use 3-D printers, and, now, a fourth generation of 3-D printers will soon be available to students, Hepburn says. All of the school’s approximately 650 design students will have hands-on experience with digital fabrication techniques and use the tools for coursework before graduation.

“Our students,” Hepburn says, “are getting access to a variety of cutting-edge tools they can use.”

Creativity Commons

UT Libraries Creativity Commons

The University of Texas Libraries recently hosted a maker demonstration event at the The Perry-Castañeda Library on campus. Photo courtesy of University of Texas Libraries. 

What is it?

An upcoming centralized maker space operated by the University of Texas Libraries in the Fine Arts Library will allow students across disciplines to work on interdisciplinary projects both for class assignments and personal interest.

The UT Creativity Commons space will include maker workshop tools found in colleges elsewhere on campus, like 3-D printers and shop tools, in addition to game development, recording and video production studios.

“There’s a real lack of these spaces where people can learn how to make a game or design a 3-D object or practice and record a song,” says head librarian Laura Schwartz. “This maker space will be a place where people can be creative in ways not necessarily tied to the curriculum.”

Tell me more

Officials are working to secure grants to fund the Creativity Commons, but Schwartz says the workspace could open as soon as fall 2015. She envisions some courses tying curriculum material into the Creativity Commons’ resources.

“If we can provide all these different experiences for people these learning experiences taking place outside the classroom in areas they may be interested in it will make students more well rounded,” Schwartz says. “We’ve seen this real interest in going back to the physical, this idea of people actually wanting to make something, and there’s a huge creative class in Austin that’s feeding into this creative economy.”

Future Teachers Learn Maker Education at UTeach Conference

Teaching in K-12 maker spaces isn’t necessarily intuitive for new teachers. It’s crucial to integrate the maker experience throughout the entire curriculum. For UT students who are looking to become teachers, UTeach incorporates maker education into its instructions for future teachers.

Established in 1997, UTeach expanded nationally in 2006, with the model now being used at 43 other universities. Representatives from those universities will gather at an annual conference this year and spend a day discussing maker education and how to prepare future teachers to use the workspaces.

Michael DeGraff, the instructional program coordinator for the UTeach Institute, says high schools across the country are, like universities, incorporating maker spaces into students’ education. Preparing future teachers to be comfortable with those workspaces, he says, is vital to ensuring schools make the most of the resources.

“The fear is these spaces will become silos, like the computer labs of the 1990s, where instead of being integrated across the curriculum, you go there just to do work for an hour,” DeGraff says. “UTeach is going to be able to provide the teachers for these new maker spaces.”