William & Mary

Small Hall Makerspace seminar for faculty is May 18-22

  • Arduino powered
    Arduino powered  Wouter Deconinck shows off a LED sign driven by an Arduino, a versatile microcontroller that is part of the arsenal available to creative folks who venture to the Small Hall Makerspace.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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One student called it William & Mary’s answer to the Room of Requirement, a reference to the magical infinity-stocked chamber at Hogwarts, a place that even wizards have trouble finding.

On a more prosaic plane, it’s simply the Small Hall Makerspace, and it’s quite easy to find on the first floor of the home the university’s Department of Physics. Two physicists, Joshua Erlich and Wouter Deconinck, are inviting their colleagues from across the university to investigate the possibilities of the facility. The two are organizing a week-long seminar, May 18 to May 22, to introduce makerspace capabilities and culture.

The two physicists believe the easily accessible technology can be used in any number of ways by faculty who will be implementing William & Mary’s new COLL curriculum next year. The facility contains 3-D printers, a virtual reality system, a laser cutter and assorted electronic devices.

“The new curriculum places a lot of stress on being interdisciplinary, and I see that as including different techniques of knowledge transferal,” said Deconinck, assistant professor of physics. “Something like a makerspace has a way of contributing to that philosophy, because it offers other ways of communicating.”

Deconinck said that the seminar is directed at faculty in arts, social sciences and humanities departments, as well as “people from the other sciences who aren’t typically associated with electronics and test benches and power supplies.”

The seminar is a continuation of interdepartmental work that has been conducted in the Small Hall Makerspace for more than a year. For example, Deconinck said the Department of Geology used a 3-D printer in the makerspace to print out a relief map of Virginia.

“So, if you want to study sea-level rise, you could put this map in a basin and pour water into it to see what parts of Virginia go underwater first,” he explained.

Peter Vishton was another early faculty user of the Small Hall Makerspace. Vishton, an associate professor in the Department of Psychology, studies the effects of the Ebbinghaus illusion, the phenomenon in which one of two disks of the same size looks bigger under certain conditions.

“We needed discs that were about four or five millimeters thick. They had to be circles that varied in size—very precisely—from about 24 millimeters to 33 millimeters, in one-millimeter increments,” he explained. “It is a surprisingly hard thing to buy disks that fit that description.”

Vishton explored a number of options to produce stimulus disks for his lab. He ended up engaging his students in work sessions, drawing circles carefully with a compass on plastic stock and cutting them out, even more carefully, with X-Acto knives. The process produced disks slowly, he said, but a greater problem was that even the most careful cutting produced disks that were not quite uniform.

“They were essentially hand-carved: pretty good, but not perfect,” Vishton said. “And one of the things we like to have in psychological experimentation is precise control over our stimuli.”

Early this year, Vishton was explaining the disks’ not-ideal-but-good-enough qualities in a lab meeting, when a student spoke up: “She said, ‘You do know there’s a 3-D printer over in Small Hall, don’t you?’”

It was the first Vishton had heard of the place, but he soon was in discussions with Deconinck about producing a set of uniform Ebbinghaus disks. He said he intends to be a repeat makerspace customer as his perception studies continue.

Deconinck was happy to help. Indeed, the makerspace code is based on mutual assistance and giving back. Deconinck says one or more of the 50 card-carrying student users are in the makerspace at any time. All are willing to take a minute and help a newbie, even if the newbie is a professor. The helping and sharing culture extends beyond any individual makerspace.

“The great thing about the maker revolution is this: Everything is open source. People write programs, and you download them,” said Erlich, associate professor of physics. Even hardware is open source, he said; the absence of intellectual property restrictions encourages makers to copy, modify and improve hardware as well as software.

“This is an Arduino,” Erlich said, holding up a palm-sized circuit board. Arduinos, the brainchild of some DIY fanatics in Italy, have become a mainstay of the international makerspace movement. Both the Arduino boards and the software to operate them are open source, making the versatile boards ideal for artists, robotics and other hands-on experimenters.

“It’s a very basic microcontroller,” Erlich explained. “If you want to turn your Arduino into a controller for a device, you can easily program it, add more circuitry and make what’s called an Arduino shield.”

Deconinck has been discussing possibilities of using the virtual reality headset system with Charles Palermo, the Alumni Memorial Term Distinguished Associate Professor of Art and Art History.

“We were talking about a mural that’s in a round stairwell,” Deconinck said. “Using virtual reality, you can recreate that experience in three dimensions and see how that perspective changes depending on where you are in the stairwell.”

Deconinck said that you don’t necessarily need to have a great deal of technical expertise to find value in the makerspace. For example, there is a large and growing body of open source data on the internet available for anyone who may want to produce a three-dimensional print of a component, a piece of sculpture, a relic, a fossil or any of a number of other objects that someone else has turned into a 3-D print. If you have an object on hand that you’d like to duplicate, all you need is the proper smartphone app.

“You basically take pictures of your object from all angles. You need maybe 30 or 40 pictures or so, and then that gets turned into a 3-D model,” Deconinck explained.

As with an open-source file, the smartphone capture file is downloaded into the 3-D computer-aided design program that drives the printer. Deconinck said that a cellphone model might have a few glitches or artifacts that can be cleaned up using the CAD software, which also allows you to scale the object up or down. The whole process doesn’t take much time.

“It takes maybe 20 minutes to take the pictures with your phone. Processing it takes another 20 minutes,” he explained. “If you don’t need to make any changes to your model, then it’s a matter of importing it into the program that we use to interface with the 3-D printer. And five minutes later you can start printing it.”