The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Visiting Students Learn about Makerspace Principles from SPP Team

Photo of UAE students in makerspace class

UMass Amherst School of Public Policy Professor Charlie Schweik and graduate student Dillon Coutinho recently introduced a group of visiting students from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the “makerspace” concept of collective problem-solving following open source collaborative principles and technologies.

The students were part of the UAE Innovation Ambassadors Program, which has brought more than 40 female undergraduates studying STEM fields to the UMass campus for two weeks of intensive study. Schweik, a joint faculty member with the Department of Environmental Conservation, is co-teaching one of those classes, Implementing Ideas through Makerspace Principles, with two colleagues from the UMass Libraries, Sarah Hutton, head of undergraduate teaching and learning services, and Steve Acquah, digital media lab coordinator.

The seminar is based on Schweik’s Makerspace Leadership and Outreach class, which will be offered this fall. In that course, students identify a real-world problem and then work to develop a solution, using open-source technology and scholarship that can be easily shared with others working on the same issue. “It’s a way for the world to work on problems collaboratively,” Schweik explained to the visiting students. And because each group carefully documents the work they’ve done, projects can easily be handed off to new teams who can continue the effort.

During their time at UMass, the United Arab Emirates students will work in teams on their own projects. On the first day of the seminar, they learned how the makerspace process works from Coutinho, a student in the Master of Public Policy program. Coutinho presented a project he’d worked on in Schweik’s class, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, about white-nose syndrome, a disease that has devastated the bat population in North America. Another of Schweik’s students, Arianna Comendul, an undergraduate in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, also discussed her work developing an inexpensive water-quality sensor for use in Colombia, where mercury from illegal gold mines has contaminated local water supplies. Comendul is working on that project in collaboration with a team at the University of Los Andes in Bogota.

While maker projects often call on STEM skills, Schweik notes that the maker concept has broader, interdisciplinary implications. “The social sciences also fall under STEM, and often technical solutions also require social science studies or involve public policy and administration,” he said. “For example, if you are to deploy a sensor to detect pollution in water, you need the social systems established to handle when these sensors detect pollution. I often ask them:  What happens then? The maker teams need to think about that.”

About the School of Public Policy: Established in 2016, the UMass Amherst School of Public Policy is a hub for research and teaching, preparing students for leadership in public service. The program’s focuses include social change and public policy related to science and technology.

— Maureen Turner, communications manager, School of Public Policy

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