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College of Information and Computer Sciences Unveils New Makerspace

student project - 16x16 LED cube showing classic Mario jumping
Student project by Stephen Ren and Parth Nagraj

On Monday, January 28, the College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) unveiled its new makerspace. The innovative new space, located in 2,970 square feet on the first floor of the Lederle Graduate Research Center, will provide aspiring makers in CICS with the materials and machinery they need to create physical projects.

The space includes a large classroom, a conference area, a lounge area, an electronics fabrication room, a parts room, storage lockers, a woodworking room, and a finishing room. It is expected to be outfitted with equipment such as 3D printers, laser cutters, circuit assembly machines, sewing machines, and woodshop machines.

Students, faculty, and former colleagues gathered at the unveiling to dedicate the space to Professor Emeritus Robin John Popplestone (1938-2004), an early pioneer in robotics and computer programming languages.

Popplestone, who was born and raised in the United Kingdom, became known for his research work in the mid-1970s on the "Freddy II" hand-eye robotic device at the University of Edinburgh. He joined the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a professor of computer science and director of the laboratory for perceptual robotics in 1985, staying until his retirement in 2001.

"With this dedication, we wish to honor Robin's impact on our department and the field of computer science," said Laura Haas, dean of CICS. "We hope that Robin's playfulness and joy in creating extends to all of the students who use this new makerspace."

One of the first courses scheduled to be taught in the makerspace is CS 290M: "Make: A Hands-On Introduction to Physical Computing," taught by CICS associate professor Rui Wang. Wang has been an integral part of the team working on the new space, which he describes as "a way to show off a person's innovation and creativity, as well as a place for different types of people to meet and discuss projects, such as engineers and business people."

Stephen Ren, a senior CICS honors student, took Professor Wang's course and was impressed by how it taught "valuable lessons in translating theory to practicability." Having access to equipment and hardware allowed him to "see" his code in new ways. In one exercise, students were taught to program LED rings to act as progress rings and use them to literally visualize the data stored in their data structures.

Ren's final project, jointly developed with fellow student Parth Nagraj, was a 16 by 16 LED matrix that could be used to display images and animations. While pleased with the final result they achieved, Ren believes that access to the new makerspace will help future students reach even higher. "When I was working on our project, the lack of access to appropriate resources--hardware or otherwise--was at times a hindrance," he said. "The new makerspace [should] be that venue where students or creators can uncompromisingly realize their creations."

Construction of the makerspace is complete and equipment is in the process of being purchased and installed. Students should expect to gain access within the next few months. It will join other makerspaces at UMass Amherst, including the College of Engineering's M5 Makerspace and MIE Innovation Lab, the 3D Innovation Center at W.E.B. Du Bois Library, and the College of Natural Sciences' Trimble Technology Lab.