How Stanford’s makerspaces are adapting to the pandemic

Even faced with complete closure due to health and safety guidelines, Stanford’s makerspaces have found innovative ways to continue serving their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In normal circumstances, the many makerspaces of Stanford University offer tools, resources, supplies, workshops and personal assistance to campus creatives producing art, engineering, textiles and science. But the same personal instruction and shared resources that make Stanford’s makerspaces so practical are, unfortunately, also problematic during the coronavirus pandemic.

Aparna Sharma, operations manager at the Robin Li and Melissa Ma Science Library, making face coverings in her dining room. Sharma is a member of the Masquaraders, an effort led by the Stanford Libraries and the Textile Makerspace to produce face coverings for library staff. (Image credit: Courtesy Aparna Sharma)

“Our space is literally the exact opposite of what you want for a COVID-friendly room: small, airless, no ventilation and it can hold maybe three people with social distancing, which doesn’t help with hands-on instruction,” noted Quinn Dombrowski, academic technology specialist in the Division of Literatures, Cultures and Languages in the School of Humanities and Sciences and founder of the Textile Makerspace in Pigott Hall.

While gathering for hands-on activities may not be well suited to pandemic circumstances, the maker spirit remains alive and well. Stanford’s makerspaces and the activities they enable are arguably more valuable than ever, providing resources and distractions during an uncertain and stressful time. Yes, the Textile Makerspace will likely be among the last to reopen after the pandemic is under control but, in the interim, its makers rallied their talents and supplies to sew hundreds of face coverings for neighbors, family and friends around the world. Other makerspaces have pivoted online and to DIY kits. With winter quarter on the horizon, some spaces are prepping for a possible increase in users but, if plans change, the staff, students and faculty who run these spaces will make the best of whatever comes next.

New approaches to making

Following the shutdown of in-person operations in March, many of the makerspaces quickly devised new ways to serve their communities. Some spaces also saw increased interest in existing initiatives that cater to virtual and at-home making.

Co-led by Dombrowksi and Julie Sweetkind-Singer, the associate university librarian for science and engineering, the newly-formed Masquaraders produced 1,300 face coverings for the staff of the Stanford Libraries – three for each person. In addition to sewing, nearly 50 staff members facilitated the distribution of supplies and the finished face coverings. The group also received help from Sheet Metal Workers’ Union No. 104 in San Ramon and The Granary, a local quilt shop.

The electrical engineering makerspace located in the basement of the David Packard Electrical Engineering Building, called lab64, is usually focused on hosting social events and workshops, while also maintaining drop-in lab space for anyone interested in electrical engineering. Due to the coronavirus, however, the lab’s three mentors and its manager, Steven Clark, dedicated more time to online workshops. In the spring and the fall, lab64 offered a printed circuit board (PCB) workshop to teach students how to design a radio PCB. All of the instructions for the workshop are available on GitHub but they have also offered virtual instructional classes and office hours.

“The students have had endless enthusiasm,” said Kylee Krzanich, ’21, an electrical engineering major and lab64 mentor. “Last quarter, the class was held on Friday night and office hours were on Saturday, but people were motivated. They showed up asking questions and they would always turn their boards in on time.”

Even with a surprising number of students showing up on a weekend, there is room for more in the virtual workshop. The mentors are still encouraging students from any discipline and with any level of electrical engineering experience to sign up.

The pandemic also boosted awareness of Terman Engineering Library’s Mobile Maker Cart Program, a resource launched in late 2019 that enables Stanford community members to check out carts stocked with tools and supplies for different engineering projects. The first cart – a large toolbox containing a 3D printer, laptop, supplies for soldering, kits for electronics and programming projects, and a 120-piece toolset – was something Terman librarian Zac Painter long dreamed about but only realized through collaboration with Joseph Makokha, an academic technology specialist at the Cubberley Education Library, and Michael Nack, digital technology manager at Terman. During its first months, the cart had not gained much attention and the team was brainstorming ways to advertise it. Then, the pandemic hit.

“In many ways, COVID breathed some life into the project, as we had a way to provide these objects to interested people in ways that other facilities did not,” said Painter.

During the pandemic, the Terman team has continued to refine the Maker Cart program, making the cart options more modular.

We’re trying to take it all in stride but it’s a lot. But sometimes doing something crafty is just what we need; it’s how we take care of ourselves.

Aaron Ragsdale

Throughout the pandemic, the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Makery, has continued to offer making workshops, kits, mentorship and motivation in abundance. All summer, their Instagram (@gsemakery) featured weekly challenges for people seeking creative inspiration. Their Summer of Creativity program also published a document with DIY science projects for middle-school-age kids. Locally, the GSE Makery distributed kits for these projects in collaboration with the Boys and Girls Club in East Palo Alto.

“I used to work in East Palo Alto, so I’ve always pushed us to think broadly about how the things that we’re doing can support efforts in this community that is in our backyard,” said Aaron Ragsdale, manager of the GSE Makery.

The GSE Makery offered their craft kits to families alongside food distribution by the Boys and Girls Club, and every kit was claimed in about 10 minutes. Their virtual workshops are still running, however, and open to students, faculty and friends. In November, topics include making hip hop beats and shapeshifting photo cubes.

Reflecting on the wealth of resources the GSE Makery has supported during the pandemic, Ragsdale was matter-of-fact. “This is a very difficult time and there have been moments where we say, ‘I can’t really be productive right now,’” said Ragsdale. “We’re trying to take it all in stride but it’s a lot. But sometimes doing something crafty is just what we need; it’s how we take care of ourselves.”

Designing for the future

The successes so far have heartened Stanford’s makerspace leaders, even in the face of continued uncertainty. Looking forward, the GSE Makery is working on projects for younger kids and an online in-service program to help teachers develop best practices for virtual learning. They are also contemplating a small, freestanding craft library or mailbox, where people could pick up DIY kits or, potentially, 3D printed projects. The Terman Library Mobile Maker Carts are also still evolving and will likely include a textile cart, developed in collaboration with the Textile Makerspace.

Building a makerspace without walls

A pilot program will give students free 3D printers to build their designs without coming on campus.

“We want people to feel like maker technology is something that they can use, even if they don’t know how to get started,” said Painter. “But we also want people who don’t have access, or aren’t ready to invest themselves, to have some tools they can use for their projects and design.”

The lab64 team is restarting work on a maker store, where students could pick up supplies for low or no cost and are preparing the makerspace for the possible return of students in winter quarter. They have also been lending a hand with on-boarding for the Stanford Student Space Initiative by supporting remote projects on avionics – electronics used in flying technologies.

“We’re going to be doing some work to prepare our physical space back on campus to be as useful as possible for people in the future. Aside from that, we’re doing what we can to best support students, like answering their questions and helping them debug projects,” said Clarissa Daniel, ’22, an electrical engineering major and lab64 mentor. “It’s an on-going challenge, but we’re figuring it out.”

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