New makerspace director envisions collaborative, DIY environment for students to learn

// College of Engineering

Tags: Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory, Lennon Rodgers, makerspace

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An ideal makerspace fosters innovation, entrepreneurship and design-thinking among students, says Lennon Rodgers, director of the new makerspace—the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory—on the University of Wisconsin-Madison College of Engineering campus. He also believes it should encourage collaboration across disciplines and be rooted in best practices from science, engineering, business, arts and humanities.

The makerspace, which will open in fall 2017 on the second floor of the Wendt building on the engineering campus, will offer students access to cutting-edge tools in a collaborative, self-directed environment. Initial resources will include meeting spaces, 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC routers, tools for circuit board fabrication, as well as more general hand and power tools for wood, metal and plastics. But beyond the tools, Rodgers wants to create a community and culture that is welcoming to students.

Rodgers comes to the makerspace from a similar stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In fact, the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Laboratory will be the fourth makerspace he has helped build in the last seven years.

In addition to creating makerspaces in Singapore, Russia and at MIT, Rodgers has worked in shops and engineering environments in Germany, India, Switzerland, Sweden and across the United States. He has collaborated with a diverse range of students and staff to provide spaces that empower students across cultures. Not only has he provided an engineer’s expertise to design spaces, but he has taught design principles as well, both at MIT and at ETH-Zurich, in Switzerland. He also helped create a master’s program at MIT that integrates business, engineering and industrial design.

With a background in mechanical engineering, and an affinity for design-oriented experiences, he has been both a longtime user and creator of makerspaces, as well as a strong advocate for design education. Rodgers’ passion for design and building started early: “I started designing and building in my parents’ garage and re-built motorcycles throughout high school,” Rodgers says. “In graduate school, I was trained in a machine shop and built a docking port for a testbed spacecraft inside the International Space Station.”

After graduating from MIT with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering, Rodgers worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on ground- and space-based telescopes. And in his free time, he continued to hone his design skills by building an electric motorcycle. When he returned to MIT for his PhD in 2009, he led teams that built electric motorcycles for the Isle of Man and Pikes Peak races.

Rodgers plans to advance his creative mindset at UW-Madison by working with faculty to bring classes to the makerspace and create programs such as a multidisciplinary design-oriented master’s degree. He also intends to develop collaborations with external organizations (e.g. industry, non-profits, government) to help students identify needs and opportunities. According to Rodgers, “Most engineered devices are complex and stretch across multiple disciplines.

Engineers are well suited to effectively communicate technical concepts across the team and to decision makers. The makerspace will be a place where students can find their footing within this complex environment. Engineering students will also have the opportunity to gain skills often considered outside of engineering, though valuable when looking for a job (e.g. creativity, design process, empathy, etc.).”

Fundamental to Rodgers’ background in design is the idea of giving students the chance to teach themselves and collaborate with others while having access to the intellectual and physical resources available at a university. “Instead of being chosen for them, I would like students to feel free to decide the projects they think are impactful,” he says. “I worked on projects day and night for months and years because I was attempting to realize a vision I helped create with others. Thus, I want to encourage students to seek grand challenges, dream big and take risks.”

But before setting out to maximize the potential of the space, Rodgers will tap into the principles of design by communicating with students, faculty and the UW-Madison community at large to better understand potential needs and opportunities on campus. By integrating voices across disciplines, Rodgers hopes to create an evolving space that will best serve engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs, artists, creators and dreamers alike.

The makerspace is hiring both student and professional staff. All students are encouraged to attend a discussion on the makerspace with Rodgers on Thursday, April 20, starting at 5:30 p.m. in Room 150, 1410 Engineering Drive. For more information and to register, please visit: www.facebook.com/uwmadmaker/

Author: Lexy Brodt