Open Lab brings creative and collaborative environment to ECE Building

8/23/2016 Claire Hettinger, ECE ILLINOIS

"The lab has very few rules. No food or drink. No homework."

Written by Claire Hettinger, ECE ILLINOIS

With the new semester starting up, students have a special space in the ECE Building at their disposal: the Open Lab. Like its name suggests, the lab is open and available for students to use. There’s just one catch: it doesn’t allow homework.

That’s right. This lab on the second floor is reserved for students to create projects that are outside of their normal classwork requirements. The goal of the Open Lab is for students to work on things they are passionate about.

“We discourage people from working on homework. There are other places for homework,” said Casey J Smith (MS '01), ECE ILLINOIS’ director of instructional labs. “We want it to be fun and accessible with a culture of creating things.”  

There’s a growing population of students who want to apply what they are learning in class or try new projects that could mean both social and personal improvement.

The lab also will help underclassmen involved in hands-on creative engineering. It’s important to have something in the building to give students the chance to fiddle around between classes or when they have an extra moment to create things they are passionate about, Smith said.

Getting access to the lab is easy: sign up online and attend safety training. Then, students can access the lab whenever inspiration strikes, 24/7.

Smith gives the safety tour twice a week or by appointment and simply goes over the equipment in the lab.

“The lab has very few rules, no food or drink, no homework,” Smith said. “Don’t sleep in there.”

“When I was a student, there wasn’t any place to do this, you would have to do it at home, so it’s really nice to have a place where the students can come between classes to maybe fiddle around with something for a few minutes,” he said.

The Open Lab came out of a need for students who were not part of undergraduate research.

Students didn’t have access to labs until they were in the project-based classes. Many opportunities to take those aren’t until junior year.

The lab has benches for large team projects and storage areas for teams with smaller projects. Students use the lab currently for an IEEE robotics competition; another team is creating a wind generator. Others are working on a competition funded by NASA for doing lunar mining. Some are creating therapeutic robot dolls, and others making kits to teach high school students how to solder.

The lab is partially run by a student committee who works with Smith to make decisions about and shaping and directing the lab. They work to make decisions about what students want and need from the Open Lab.

It is meant to be student-run as much as possible, Smith said, he guides them and enacts their decisions. Students decided to hire lab monitors to enforce the rules and keep everyone safe. Also the committee decided on the no-homework policy because there was no other space for people to come together and work on projects.

“I am the memory of the lab, but I want the students to be the decision-makers,” he said.

One of the enjoyable things about the Open Lab is seeing engineering spread across all disciplines, Smith said. The Open Lab is not just for engineering students — anyone can apply, Smith said.

“It helps folks in their coursework if they’ve tried to build something and then they run into a problem. It helps them develop a real desire to go to their coursework and ask, ‘What do I have to learn in this lecture to help me solve the problem I am having or to make my project work,’” he said.

The culture of the Open Lab is starting to develop into a creative space, and Smith said he wants it to keep developing.

 “I would like people to know that they are walking into this funky, creative space,” he said. “I want them to think about the projects they see around them and to even be inspired by what other people are doing and the people around them.”

The earlier students do that, the more rewarding engineering is for them, he said. The Open Lab gives them an opportunity to try and build things and solve real world problems.

“I think it will give people confidence about what they can do as well and I hope they will start as freshmen, and then when they are seniors they will be doing great things in there,” he said. 

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This story was published August 23, 2016.