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Exploring the humanities through unique makerspaces

UVic lab blends humanities research with the makerspace ethos.

By CASSANDRA HENDRY | April 9, 2014

Circuit boards, screwdrivers and 3D printers aren’t typically found in a university’s humanities faculty, but the University of Victoria’s Maker Lab in the Humanities is no ordinary place. Opened in 2012, the Maker Lab follows the recent trend of “makerspaces” – collaborative, community-based workshops stocked with tools and materials for people to experiment with and create new things. But, what sets the UVic lab apart is blending this “makerspace ethos” with the humanities.

The UVic lab lets faculty and students explore the humanities through projects that incorporate techniques like physical computing, data modeling, 3D printing and prototyping, says Jentery Sayers, the lab’s director and an English professor at the university. Dr. Sayers and his team of 15 people, 12 of whom are graduate students, not only conduct research at the lab but also host numerous activities for public audiences. At one recent workshop, for example, participants learned how to make paper speakers and an amplifier circuit from a mixed bag of components.

“One of our major priorities is communicating research to the greater public and building partnerships with people beyond the campus,” says Dr. Sayers. “I’m really intrigued at the possibility of building partnerships with local artists and galleries, but also places like museums and archives.”

Dr. Sayers says he wants to “re-animate” history and archives through the work at the Maker Lab. The point, he explains, is to ask the question, “To what degree can you reconstruct historical experiments and what can you learn about the culture of technology when you do that?” In 2013, Dr. Sayers and colleague William J. Turkel of Western University were awarded a four-year Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to support their work. The Maker Lab has also received support from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Modernist Versions Project (directed by Stephen Ross) and the Electronic Textual Cultures Lab (directed by Ray Siemens) at UVic.

The Maker Lab’s main project right now is called Kits for Cultural History, says Nina Belojevic, a master’s student in English who’s participating. Students and faculty are taking apart old media technologies and video games to see how they tick. Another exciting project, she says, is a pop-up makerspace that the UVic team is taking to Lima, Peru.

Although UVic is an early adopter of the on-campus makerspace, the majority are located off university campuses, such as Toronto’s HackLab.TO and Winnipeg’s AssentWorks. Public libraries in Toronto and Edmonton also now feature makerspaces, and the Ottawa Public Library will be opening one this spring.

Student-run SparQ Labs at Queen’s University was founded in 2013 and gets back to the roots of the makerspace movement, often attributed to the “hacker” culture, by focusing on engineering and technological pursuits. Unlike UVic’s lab, it isn’t a research centre or affiliated with a university department.

“It encompasses our bottom-up approach to innovation, such that we try to empower every student to create,” says Robin Sim, a fourth-year mechanical engineering student and the lab’s co-founder. He compares SparQ Labs to the image of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple, tinkering in a garage.

SparQ Labs got its start after three engineering students and an arts student wanted to create a place where Queen’s students could experiment and hone their skills, says Mr. Sim. The students pitched the idea to the Queen’s Innovation Connector, a group that supports student start-ups, which gave them a grant to open a makerspace.

For a user fee, students can come into the lab to create whatever they wish. Recent projects that came out of the space include phone-charging stations in restaurants and wooden sunglasses, says Mr. Sim. “We wanted to create an innovation lab where like-minded people can come together … and see cool things happen.”

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