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A Philosopher in the Makerspace

Byline: Irene Gashurov/staff writer, OLS.

If you’ve visited Queens College’s Rosenthal Library lately, you may have noticed a room outfitted with equipment—arts and crafts supplies, sewing machines, 3-D printers, and laser cutters, to name a few. The room is not just an engineering outpost. It is a makerspace, a collaborative learning facility where students of different technological aptitudes can experiment, tinker with technology, and build what they learn in the classroom, free from the pressure of failure. Students of all majors can try out their abilities to become designers, builders, and technical operators. 

QC makerspace logo.

Making is about thinking with your hands and transforming what the mind imagines into products. At Queens College, the QC Makerspace works like a craft shop for students to experiment on equipment that the QC Makerspace offers training on and the resources to learn in the way they want. A computer science student learns to solder and builds a clock from second-hand “nixie tube” parts. An English student recreates a coin she read about in Ovid and gives it the right texture with a laser cutter/etcher. An anthropology student replicates a 3,000-year-old Egyptian boardgame, using non-electric hand tools to sculpt and carve it like those ancient Egyptians used. Students in this environment take an active role in their education. The role of the teacher takes a back seat, stewarding the facility, mentoring, and supporting students through a Socratic exchange of ideas and knowledge. 

Nick Normal, Head of QC Makerspace

At Queens College, this kind of teacher is Nick Normal, the inaugural director of the QC Makerspace. An artist, writer, and maker, Normal has been working on maker-aligned initiatives since the movement first burgeoned in San Mateo in 2006, and then spread to businesses, libraries, community centers, and colleges. Normal helped launch the World Maker Faire at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. As one of the core production crew, and its only New Yorker, Normal increased attendance at the Faire from 25,000 over a weekend in 2010 to 90,000 attendees paying to see 3D-printed cars and fighting drones over a weekend in 2017.   

The rise of the maker movement captured the zeitgeist of the country in transition.  From a culture of consumerism, the maker movement emerged as a white knight, promoting resource sharing, do-it-yourself agency, and civic innovation. Makerspaces promised grassroots economic growth from sharing expensive equipment and producing a culture of innovators and entrepreneurs. “When I look back on the maker movement, those were pivotal years,” Normal said. “There was so much overlap and spillage and interoperability between places that were previously siloed.”  

As the maker movement spilled over into the academe, pioneering libraries mapped out the future direction of non-profit makerspaces. The DeLaMare Library Makerspace at the University of Nevada, Reno, was first to offer a single 3-D printer, while the Fayetteville Free Library in Syracuse, the first to incorporate a makerspace in a public library. Inspired by these examples, Normal assumed the director position at Queens College in 2018. His audience were now students, of mixed technological aptitudes, but he adapted, and finds approaches unique to each student. “With students in STEM or STEAM-aligned trajectories, you can get them to understand what a robotic drawing arm is, but when you get to a student with little tech skills it can be a little more nebulous,” he said. “I try to find examples that align with their practice or try to get them to understand the openness of access in a makerspace. That’s the underpinning of the makerspace cultural ethos.” A steep learning curve can follow, an application of an empirical science and memorization of facts are involved, as well as experimenting with tools and techniques. But the payoff is worth it. After students have figured out how to apply that knowledge across platforms, “you’ve gotten a lot more room for interpreting the modern world we live in,” said Normal.  

To use the space, students sign up for an orientation of the facility. Currently there are 328 lifetime members since the makerspace opened in 2018. Normal and his assistants are on hand to provide mentoring, workshops in anything from computer-aided design to 3D printing and oversee safety. Normal would like to see the makerspace operable beyond regular lab hours and communities to form around sharing, but he lacks the staff.  

He remains optimistic. Knowing what can happen when we provide the environment for makerspaces to flourish, he sees great promise when students from different disciplines come together to work out common problems. “What I’m trying to do is get students who come into the makerspace to interoperate as humans,” he said. “I’m trying to get the computer scientists to talk to the anthropologists, and the biologists to talk to the engineers so that they can work on something together with their collective expertise to solve problems confronting students and community.”  

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