New makerspace technology fosters creativity, creates opportunities
When Ethan Nshakira ’24 was looking for an internship this summer, he searched for a two-fold experience. He wanted an opportunity to do work related to his film and media studies major. But he also hoped to develop skills outside that field as well.
He found his job at the Digital Scholarship Center at St. Olaf (DiSCO) to be the perfect fit. In his role, Nshakira produced and edited video content, completed asset management, and assisted fellow students, among other things.
Nshakira developed skills with programs related to his field and expanded his creative range thanks to equipment like Glowforge, a multi-use laser that can be used to cut designs in and engrave materials like wood and acrylic.
Glowforge became his favorite instrument of the summer. One reason was it provided him an opportunity to learn and understand Adobe Illustrator, a program used to design the things Glowforge creates. The other was because “the possibilities are limitless” to what someone can make. Nshakira watched people create dioramas, wall ornaments, invitations cards, and much more with the machine.
“It’s things that you never really considered doing until you had access to something like the Glowforge,” Nshakira says. “It empowers you to try out things that you would never consider.”
It empowers you to try out things that you would never consider.Ethan Nshakira ’24
Glowforge was one of two new pieces of equipment DiSCO added to the Makerspace — a hub for students in search of creative, hands-on solutions to tricky problems — this summer. The other was an upgraded 3D printing setup called the Ultimaker S5. The Ultimaker S5 is a standard filament 3D printer but provides more material features and accessibility as well as better uptime than the printers that were in the space previously.
Both machines were funded in partnership with the Piper Center for Vocation and Career to support innovation and entrepreneurship.
The empowerment Nshakira experienced with the Glowforge is what campus leaders hope all students seek when they enter DiSCO, which is located on the fourth floor of Rolvaag Library. DiSCO provides open, collaborative study and work spaces that feature computer stations equipped with media production and design software. In addition to 3D printing and scanning, students have access to virtual reality equipment, drone aerial photography and videography equipment, an audio recording booth, a multi-use AV room, and a video recording lab.
“One thing we’ve always tried to do here in DiSCO is provide access to tools and technologies that people might not be able to get on their own,” says Instructional Technologist for Digital Media Ezra Plemons, who manages both the Makerspace and DiSCO.
While the tools and technology are the backbone of DiSCO and the Makerspace, Plemons is the enzyme of the operation. Students say his encouraging approach is a critical part of what makes the operation successful.
Kate Zhylinskaya ’25, who has not declared her majors yet but is planning on studying biology and computer science, has worked with DiSCO for about a year. She said Plemons is an open-minded boss who not only encourages students to learn but is also learning himself.
A moment that exemplifies that came this summer when she was tasked with setting up the new printer with Plemons. It was a stressful situation because of the time it took to figure out the system and make sure it works.
But throughout the process, Plemons kept the mood light and boosted Zhylinskaya’s confidence, even as she worried she hadn’t properly put everything together.
His encouragement and calmness made her day.
“We always talk here that Ezra is unique in his ability to actually communicate with his workers because you never feel under pressure,” Zhylinskaya says. “You know clearly what you need to do.”
Zhylinskaya later became so skilled with the machine she created her own custom chess set.
Plemons’ leadership style of learning alongside the students while also giving them the independence to explore their own creativity allows for a greater understanding of the space’s equipment and the different ways to use them successfully, Nshakira says.
Zhylinskaya adds that Plemons’ openness to people of all experience levels is a huge benefit for increasing the opportunities everyone on campus has to grow through an experience with DiSCO.
That approach also leads to some great collaborations with other groups across campus, including the Physics Department and the Piper Center for Vocation and Career. DiSCO will connect its students with mentors and opportunities in different offices, while those other offices will do the same for students they think would benefit from ingraining themselves in the Makerspace community.
“I love that we are referring students back and forth all the time with one another,” Piper Center Director Kirsten Cahoon says. “It’s a lot of building out webs of connections to facilitate opportunities and access to different pockets of resources on campus. That’s something that Ezra is really quite good at.”
It’s exciting to be in a place where this kind of skill, talent, and creativity gets to be showcased and put to use for schoolwork and to make connections between the work that they’re doing academically and the work they’ll do in the future.Instructional Technologist for Digital Media Ezra Plemons
Plemons said the DiSCO community has “reawakened” over the last year after the pandemic slowed down its operation.
He is looking forward to seeing students use their new equipment. While Glowforge will require some training before people will be able to use it, Plemons says the Ultimaker S5 can be integrated into classwork right away.
“It’s exciting to be in a place where this kind of skill, talent, and creativity gets to be showcased and put to use for schoolwork and to make connections between the work that they’re doing academically and the work they’ll do in the future,” Plemons says.