Piper Center Spotlight: Entrepreneurship and the Makerspace
Entrepreneurial, innovative, and creative students got a boost in May 2018 with the opening of the Makerspace, St. Olaf’s new hub for students in search of creative, hands-on solutions to tricky problems. Located on the second floor of Rølvaag Library overlooking the circulation desk, the Makerspace is a collaborative effort between St. Olaf’s Digital Scholarship Center (DiSCO), the library, and the Piper Center to help students develop and engage in design-thinking skills.
“The Makerspace is dedicated to the hands-on making of something, whether it’s a digital product or a physical product,” says Ezra Plemons, instructional technologist for digital media. “It’s part of a national movement in makers’ culture, like craft beer and handbound books, as pushback against the Internet age when people are missing a physical connection with things.”
Students can access mechanical and hand fabrication tools — such as Dremel rotary tools and sewing machines — and modeling materials, robotics equipment, and supplies like fabric, paper, beads, and wire, all of the tactile materials that students need to build a prototype or simply to brainstorm an idea. The DiSCO, located next to the Makerspace, offers the digital resources needed for coding, design, 3-D and large format printing, and audio/video work.
In its first full year, the Makerspace saw an influx of students working on a broad range of projects. Students in an Asian studies course used the space to create maps that visualized villages and geographical movements, and environmental studies students built machines that illustrated the chain reactions of environmental policy. Student entrepreneurs in the Glacier Rescue Project, a group raising awareness about glacial melt and climate change, used the space to create logo patches for refurbished clothing they sold to raise money for environmental organizations.
The Makerspace is part of St. Olaf’s concerted effort to sustain a burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit among students. A generous gift from Steve Moksnes ’61 and Billie Slethaug Moksnes ’61 to expand resources for entrepreneurial learning included funding supplies for the Makerspace, the hiring of Margaret Bransford as the Piper Center’s associate director of entrepreneurship and outreach, and the establishment of the Entrepreneurial Scholars program. That program provides paid internship opportunities for a cohort of 10 students at start-up companies or in other entrepreneurial environments.
Bransford is responsible for overseeing an array of support for students interested in entrepreneurship, from managing the long-running Finstad Entrepreneurial Grant program, which awards funds to students who want to test out an entrepreneurial idea, to coaching students in the Ole Cup, an annual pitch competition that helps students turn business ideas into reality.
She’s also tasked with strategizing new ways of encouraging design-thinking and creative problem-solving skills in students by developing co-curricular programs that leverage and complement existing faculty expertise to assist all students in entrepreneurial ventures, regardless of major.
“The liberal arts are very conducive to the entrepreneurial mindset, and Oles in particular seem to have a natural aptitude for the field,” Bransford says. “Entrepreneurship can be about more than just scaling a business. It can be about learning how to support yourself in something you’re passionate about, for example, as a solopreneur musician, artist, or consultant.” She notes the importance of entrepreneurial education amidst a national trend toward a gig economy.
“Regardless of whether students go on to start a venture, St. Olaf is well-positioned to be a leader in teaching them to be flexible, to work under ambiguity, and to be creative problem solvers,” she says.
Harry Skalski ’20
Computer Science major
“The Makerspace helps us come up with solutions that are innovative and hands-on.”
Growing up outside Northfield, Minnesota, Harry Skalski often used his family’s woodworking and welding shop to make things. So it’s no surprise that he’s a regular user of St. Olaf’s new Makerspace, whether it’s for coursework or for personal projects, such as 3-D printing new game pieces to replace missing ones from board games.
“The space is always busy, with students working on class projects or personal stuff, like making clothes or posters,” he says. “The 3-D printer is very popular for making prototypes or objects needed for projects.”
Skalski took the Introduction to the Engineering Process course during Interim 2019 with Physics Professor Alden Adolph. Skalski’s small group designed and engineered a cup holder that attaches to a dinner plate, with the hope of eliminating the need for a cafeteria tray, thus reducing food waste and the use of plastics in the making of trays. Their prototype, which they tested in Stav Hall, was printed in the Makerspace.
“Through a small focus group, we discovered that our product needs a few design tweaks to move forward,” Skalski says. “The mechanism holding the cup to the plate felt flimsy, and students wanted it to be sleeker and sturdier.”
Skalski also has used the Makerspace for a physics course that required students to make a 3-D model of a particular physics problem. “My group considered how fast the comic book character the Flash would have to run to stop Earth from spinning,” Skalski says. They created a poster and a 3-D model of Earth with a Flash figurine to illustrate the physics principles used in solving the problem.
“The Makerspace is an important creative outlet for students,” Skalski says. “It helps us think through problems and come up with solutions that are innovative and hands-on.”