An international affairs major using a laser cutter to start a small business. A physics professor showing off his favorite video game. An art student getting ready to deploy an app she built. A group sketching out ways to make MARTA more appealing to students across the Atlanta University Center.
Even though the rest of campus had mostly emptied out for the winter holiday when Hypepotamus visited the Spelman Innovation Lab, it was filled with students and faculty alike — a testament to how a “maker space” has become a true community gathering spot for innovators, entrepreneurs, and creative thinkers.
From the moment you walk through the Lab’s door, the goal, assistant director Eric Thompson, MS HCI says, is to create an environment that is welcoming to liberal arts students and computer science majors alike. And that makes it a unique gem on a college campus.
Certain classes use the Lab for hands-on learning sessions, be it building musical instruments to better understand acoustics or coding for a class on interactive storytelling.
It’s also become a place for students to pursue individual projects.
During our time at the Lab, art, philosophy, biology, computer science, art, international studies, Japanese, and engineering students were working on individual projects or collaborating on new ventures.
Some students, like Blanca Burch, a senior International Studies major originally from Milwaukee, was working on an interactive game for a final project while Savannah Adams and Anetha Evans rallied a group of students through a whiteboard ideation session on how to best build an outdoor habitat for a beloved tortoise on campus.
Burch, who founded the Spelman Entrepreneurship Club and started her own business, Culturally Kreative, said the Lab has been a “grounding space” during her time on campus.
That has been particularly important for students coming back to campus after remote learning during the pandemic. While the Lab kept students engaged with online programing during 2020, having students back in person has helped bring innovation back to the center of campus.
BUILDING A NEW TYPE OF MAKER SPACE
Like many college maker spaces and innovation labs, Spelman gives students access to 3D printers, power tools, sewing machines, computer workstations, and other computing-related equipment.
But it is the people and community behind the Spelman Lab that makes it feel like more than any other classroom space.
Faculty champions join from multiple disciplines across campus, including Dr. Jaye Nias, Prof. Robert Hamilton, Dr. Tiffany Oliver, and Dr. Chris Oakley (who will be piloting a game development theory class this fall). Zynga, Siebert Williams Shank, Microsoft, and other corporate sponsors have provided funding to date.
For Volcy, it is about making the Lab an extension of the classroom experience.
Students looking to dive in more to entrepreneurship, gaming, and art have the opportunity to apply for various fellowships offered at the Lab. The building will also soon house the Blackstone LaunchPad, an initiative designed to bring entrepreneurial tools to college students.
Projects coming out of the Lab have ranged from high-tech fashion initiatives to tech-enabled jewelry to video game design and development.
Every square inch of the Innovation Lab is packed with materials ready to be made into the next Spelman student creation. But at the center of the space is a long table that serves as a place for ideation, conversations over lunches, coding, and so many more innovative pursuits.
And it just might launch the career of the next group of Atlanta-based entrepreneurs.