At the CEID, a Social Distance Robot and Other Ways to Bring a Makerspace Online


How do you get people up to speed on circuitry in a way that’s particularly relevant to these times? Teach them to build a social-distancing robot. With a motor, distance sensor, LED, and a buzzer, attendees at a recent workshop of the Center for Engineering Innovation & Design (CEID) could make a device to guard their personal space. 

“That was a fun thing we were building to put the circuitry we were learning into context,” said CEID Design Fellow Antonio Medina, who led the workshop over Zoom. “The second something gets within six feet, a light could blink red, a buzzer could beep very loudly, and then the LCD screen could say ‘Please stay back - you’re less than six feet away!’ and a little motor could put up a stop sign that says ‘Stop.’”

It’s one of the creative ways the CEID staff has been working to keep its popular workshops and other activities continuing, even as the university has moved operations online to help slow the spread of COVID-19.  

Considering that the CEID is typically a hub for hands-on projects and in-person interactions, the change took some planning. But not only have the many CEID activities continued, the staff has increased both the number of scheduled workshops and multiplied the number of attendees. Before moving operations online, the CEID held a workshop once a week and capped attendance at 10 to 20 participants. They quickly realized that over Zoom, however, that they could open it up to a broader audience and hold two workshops each week. Now, they’re drawing between 30 and 60 attendees for workshops on - to name a few topics - web design, 3D modeling programs, and Photoshop.  

“I think having the opportunity to let a lot more people participate is a big plus,” said CEID Design Fellow Ashlyn Oakes. “I don’t think there’s a real negative to having it over Zoom, except that we have to restrain our content to things that can be done with software that’s accessible. I think it lends itself pretty nicely to the workshop format, because you just share your screen, people follow along, and then we share the recording later on.” 

CEID Assistant Director Joe Zinter said keeping the workshops was definitely worth the effort, since it helped maintain a sense of normalcy and peer support for the students at a particularly difficult time.  

“We were presented with a tremendous opportunity for the CEID to engage its members in new, innovative ways, and to demonstrate the strength and resilience of our vibrant community,” Zinter said. “I'm very proud of the efforts made by the CEID staff, especially our design fellows, Ashlyn and Antonio, whose hard work, creativity, and boundless optimism, allowed us to transition CEID workshops and training sessions to a virtual format.” 

In addition to the workshops, they’ve continued holding training sessions in MakerBot and the CEID sewing machine and have kept office hours. They’ve also featured guest lecturers, including Dr. Steven Tommasini and Dr. Daniel Wiznia from the School of Medicine, who led a workshop on using software to simulate how medical devices and implants interface with the human body. At another event, Hong Kong artist Wong Chi-yung discussed his art, which crosses over into other disciplines. And for those who are looking for the kinds of social activities that have always been a part of the CEID, the staff has you covered as well. This past week, Oakes pointed out, they held a CEID T-shirt design contest.  

The popularity of the CEID’s events makes sense, Medina said. Students’ free time has increased, while extracurricular activities have gone down.

“I think people are looking to learn new things during self-isolation,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for people to learn a skill or dive into something new without the pressure of being in a structured class or given an assignment. They can watch the video, follow along with the workshops, and learn the skill at their own pace in a very casual format. It's very much learning for the sake of learning.”