Michigan Tech's new 'makerspace' will give patent rights to young inventors

Students, faculty, and staff are collaborating to design a creative space that will let university affiliates design and build prototypes of new inventions.

Ashley Twiggs/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Reese Send, a graduate of Manufacturing Technology Academy in Traverse City, Michigan, uses The Mouse Glove to play Solitaire at the InvenTeams Odyssey at MIT in Cambridge, Mass, in 2006. A group of students, staff and faculty at Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., are collaborating to create a "makerspace" to design protoypes for new inventions on campus.

The basement of Michigan Tech's Memorial Union used to be a place for knocking down bowling pins. By next semester, if renovations go well, it will be a place for building up dreams.

About 100 Tech students, faculty and staff recently gathered at the union to brainstorm that transformation and help design Michigan Tech's first "makerspace" — a lab, workshop and hangout where anyone in the university community will be able to go to turn their ideas into prototype realities, according to The Daily Mining Gazette.

The ideas came fast and furious, were turned into floor plans and debated by groups that merged them into proposals, sometimes even modeling them out of Play-Doh and pipe cleaners.

Mechanical Engineering staffer Nancy Barr's team suggested workbenches and some serious tools like a band saw and drill press, along with art supplies and one of the more common suggestions, a 3D printer.

"Preferably a larger one," said Barr. "We've just got a great place for letting your mind wander."

Software engineering student Mitch Davis' team suggested a Lego room, for initial prototyping. Many proposals included computers, but Davis' team took it a step further — they want computers accessible from hammocks.

"We've wanted a hacker space for quite a while," said Davis, whose shirt was covered in sticky notes with ideas for the makerspace. "If someone does it for us, awesome."

"The stickies were supposed to go on the paper," he added. "We decided it would be better if I became the ideas."

Other ideas focused on making the space a fun, creative environment, and ranged from a jukebox and beanbags to gaming and virtual reality spaces, even jump ropes and bouncy balls to get bodies and minds flowing in sync.

Brad Turner, a software engineering student and one of Tech's nine National Science Foundation University Innovation Fellows, led the brainstorming activities. Beyond brainstorming, he said, decisions about the makerspace would be made by a committee including students, faculty and staff.

The student voice would come from a group called "The Movement," an organization created by the Innovation Fellows.

Turner envisioned a makerspace accommodating "a mix of skills in one space, with students teaching students."

One of the best parts, he said, was that the university has already agreed all intellectual property created at the makerspace would remain the property of its creators. Generally, he explained, Tech would get rights to property created using university resources.

"The university will own none of it," he said. "That's rare on campus. Whatever you do it's going to be yours, and your idea."

Neither he nor The Movement adviser Mary Rabero could say whether the public would be able to use the makerspace, but Rabero said the topic had been raised and there were models elsewhere that included public memberships.

Rabero, who is the assistant dean of the Pavlis Honors College, wasn't sure attendees would get everything they wanted in the original makerspace. But she also said she expected the project to grow beyond the bowling alley. At last month's university board of trustees meeting, the trustees included a request for a much larger makerspace in the annual funding wish list they sent to the Michigan legislature.

"We consider it a phase one makerspace," Rabero said. "I think there'll be so much demand we can ask for more space."

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