On the weekend of January 17, 18, and 19, a number of local organizations, including the College of Engineering Diversity Programs Office (DPO), teamed up to run a Beginning Arduino Makerspace Workshop for kids and adults. Arduino is a computer board which can be programmed to create a wide variety of electronic projects. This open-source electronics prototyping platform is based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software and intended for artists, designers, and hobbyists. The object of the weekend event, which was held at Amherst Media on College Street, was to create a new “Maker Community,” which emphasizes learning-through-doing in a social environment and informal, networked, peer-led, and shared learning motivated by fun and self-fulfillment.

The lead organizers of the event were UMass Professors Charlie Schweik of Environmental Conservation and Steven Brewer of Biology, UMass graduate student Don Blair of Physics, and Nick Ring of Amherst Media. Funding was provided by the DPO, the UMass Center for Public Policy and Administration, and the Science, Technology and Society Program, thanks in part to the teamwork of DPO Director Paula Rees collaborating with Martha Fuentes-Bautista, Susan Newton, and Michal Lumsden.

“As Rees noted, “I see the availability of opportunities like this as a critical step towards increasing the pipeline of students – particularly girls - pursuing degrees in engineering and computing.”

Typical interests enjoyed by the maker culture include engineering-oriented pursuits such as electronics, robotics, 3-D printing, and the use of CNC tools, as well as more traditional activities such as metalworking, woodworking, and traditional arts and crafts. Maker communities stress new and unique applications of technologies and encourages invention and prototyping. There is a strong focus on using and learning practical skills and applying them creatively.

At the Amherst Maker Community event, Rees demonstrated how to use an Arduino Board called a LillyPad to create “wearable computing,” a technology that students from the DPO have been teaching to school children in various parts of Massachusetts. Also called E-textiles, short for electronic textiles, these are fabrics that enable computing, digital components, and electronics to be embedded in them. Part of the development of wearable technology, e-textiles are known as intelligent clothing or smart clothing because they allow for the incorporation of built-in technological elements in everyday textiles and clothes.

“On Friday, participants and members of MakerSpace communities throughout the region and at the Five-Colleges participated in a round table,” said Rees. “It was exciting to see the interest and begin to explore collaborations.”

The sold-out audience of 35 also was treated to demonstrations of Arduinos in action, “SquareWear” (an open-source Arduino-based wearable microcontroller), a Raspberry PI sprinkler control system (intelligent irrigation), and 3D Design and Printing. There were also short demonstrations by various “makers” in the area. In addition, the audience was divided up into teams of two people apiece, which each learned how to make Arduino-controlled LED lights and roll a “digital die.”

“It was an incredibly auspicious start,” said Brewer, “and I’m confident we’ll be doing more of these in the future.” (January 2014)