Student-led Makerspaces Help Engineers Learn by Teaching

Engineering students can augment their studies by sharing expertise with peers in student-run makerspaces.

Many universities and colleges are getting on the makerspace bandwagon, with machine shops and prototyping labs opening across campuses everywhere.  These are invaluable to engineering students, offering them the tools and machines to pursue their projects and coursework assignments.

However, many of these labs can suffer from a lack of available instructors to teach machine operations, have inconvenient hours or only be available to students enrolled in certain programs.

A group of engineering graduate students at MIT experienced these difficulties firsthand, despite the apparent abundance of makerspaces already available on their campus.

The students decided to come up with a solution – an all-access, long-hours, student-run makerspace to add to MIT’s repertoire – and so MakerWorks was born.

MakerWorks Lab: Run by Students, for Students

The initial three graduate students proposing the MakerWorks space quickly became a group of eight. These founding students wanted a workshop where hobby, extracurricular and research machining projects would not conflict with classwork taking place in other campus labs and machine shops.

They also wanted to create an opportunity for engineering students and other makers to take advantage of the skills, experience and knowledge of their peers.

With the guidance of professors from the department of Mechanical Engineering, the MechE students worked to recruit mentors, identify machine and equipment requirements, developed safety procedures, solicited funding, managed shop staffing and scheduling and built up a community around the MakerWorks lab as it developed.

The MakerWorks team is currently comprised of 35 graduate students who act as mentors and staff to administer the shop.  New users attend an introductory “Maker Mondays” session to learn about shop policies and tools from one of these mentors, after which they are free to use the shop for their projects.

Mentors Chris and Raghav collaborate at the CNC mill. (Image courtesy of MIT/MakerWorks.)

Mentors Chris and Raghav collaborate at the CNC mill. (Image courtesy of MIT/MakerWorks.)

The MakerWorks lab houses 12 fundamental machines, in many cases multiples of each, including a mill, a lathe, a water-jet, a laser cutter, a router, a 3-D printer, a bandsaw, a drill press and others.

Each of the mentors works in the shop for at least one two-hour shift per week and is required to teach at least one machine training session per week. They are also responsible for maintaining their appointed machine and keeping the area clean.

“We want MakerWorks not only to be a makerspace but also to be known as a place for good engineering,” said Raghav Aggarwal, a member of the MakerWorks administrative team. “That’s why the graduate student mentors are a great resource. They provide a very diverse body of knowledge and experience.”

One of MakerWork’s co-founders, PhD student Dan Dorsch adds, “It’s important to give students a place to learn how to build well and develop better building practices. Having both analytical skills and a strong understanding of how products are designed and manufactured empowers engineers.”

Engineers Teaching Engineers

This desire to enable great engineering led to the addition of a measurement and validation section to the shop, making the MakerWorks lab one of the first makerspaces at MIT to include prediction tools. 

“The ability to plan the engineering process through the combination of design software, rapid prototyping and validation tools intentionally gives the space a significant engineering focus rather than offering something more similar to a hacker space,” said Dorsch.

But the greatest benefits come from students interacting with each other in the shop, collaborating and sharing ideas. 

The graduate student mentors can exercise their knowledge by assisting new and undergraduate users, so everyone has the chance to learn something new – a technique, a design trick, a clever solution to a problem – simply by being exposed to a variety of engineering and maker projects they may not otherwise see.

“People say that teaching is the best way to learn,” said Dorsch, “and I think this is a perfect example.”

This type of student-led initiative is one that could – and should – be replicated at other campuses and makerspaces, as the benefits of engineers teaching each other are essential.

For more information, check out the MakerWorks site at MIT.