UC Berkeley's Jacobs Institute Invites Innovation Through Interdisciplinary Programming

Outside the Jacobs Institute at UC Berkeley.

In August of 2015, UC Berkeley opened the doors to Jacobs Hall, home of the College of Engineering's Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, described as their "interdisciplinary hub for learning and making at the intersection of design and technology." The 24,000-square-foot building houses a wide variety of creative spaces and tool labs, including individual dedicated labs for wood fabrication, CAD/CAM, electronics, A/V production, and advanced prototyping, as well as all-purpose makerspaces (with Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine proudly among the tool offerings).

Even the building itself embodies innovation: Jacobs Hall has received platinum certification from the LEED program and has been named one of the country’s top 10 examples of sustainable architecture and ecological design in 2016.

At the root of the Jacobs Institute mission is to create spaces that invite collaboration between multiple disciplines. Per their site: 

We see design and technological innovation as integrally linked: innovation opens possibilities and extends the reach of design, while design links new technologies with human experiences and ensures that innovation truly benefits people and communities. Bringing together technical depth, design methodology, and a focus on societal impact, we aim to educate students who understand both the under-the-hood details that make something work and the big-picture context that makes something matter.

Creating co-curricular programming and ensuring that spaces are inviting to all disciplines and levels is no easy task. Intrigued to learn more, we spoke with Jacobs Institute's Technical Lab Lead Joey Gottbrath and Communications & Programs Officer Laura Mitchell. 

Tell us about the approaches educators at the Jacobs Institute take for designing and implementing co-curricular programming.

Joey: Having an environment that allows for personal projects and exploration, as well as more formal curriculum-driven activities, means that we see an increasing need for instruction beyond the safe usage training.

Laura: One approach we have taken is developing one-off workshops, which we call Design Nights, that let students learn about a new tool or gain a tangible skill. We see these workshops as accessible entry points: students can take them whether or not they already have a Maker Pass, allowing students from across campus to explore what’s possible at Jacobs Hall.

With so many tools available, it can be hard for students to know where to start. In programs like Design Nights, we aim to foster skills that will allow them to more fully make use of our equipment. Workshops have included introductions to Illustrator for lasercutting, Arduino, and techniques for connecting wood and metal, to name a few.

Outside of these programs, Jacobs Hall houses DeCals, student-taught courses on topics from 3D modeling to graphic design, as well as student club programs, adding a culture of student skill-sharing to the space. We also offer talk series and field trips to local design spaces and offices, helping our students connect what they do in the makerspace to real-world design practices.

Inside the Jacobs Institute!

What are some of the most important things to keep in mind when creating training material for a broad audience with varying skill levels and backgrounds?

Joey: Creating content for a broad audience is a huge task, but the “beginning” level instruction needs to be highly structured, while the advanced users are mainly looking for time and space (and community) to do their work, and to be pointed toward resources for specific issues. Software is a good example; at first you need to know how to do all the basics, but later, short, pointed tutorials do the job. Another example is Instructables.com. They created the community early on but have recently tried to address the issue of educating their beginner users to build skills.

What are the inherent challenges in crafting this type of curriculum and training material? How do you overcome them?

Joey: The beginner content needs to be concise and accurate to the users’ conditions. This could be overcome by making the content topical (make/model) and dynamic (GIFs, videos). Understanding your users’ motivations is also important. I would point to the work of Aproeand their safety curriculum, which has focused on reduction of unnecessary content and simplicity of message. The more advanced users need to be engaged more aggressively. The possibilities of what can be done with a given tool or process are not always evident, and outreach might be necessary to create interest.

Students at the Jacobs Institute working with the Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machine, formerly known as the Othermill.

Many of the Jacobs Institute courses focus on working in teams. Why is this important?

Laura: We think that working as part of a diverse team is an important skill for design innovation. Real-world design projects almost always involve working in interdisciplinary teams, and we want to prepare our students well for this. Many of the courses held in Jacobs Hall are project-centric, with project teams often bringing together students from different disciplines. This allows students to learn from each other’s perspectives, and to bring their individual areas of expertise into contact with new ideas and with a shared toolkit of design methodologies and hands-on skills.

How do you make the many labs and makerspaces in Jacobs Hall and across campus inviting and welcoming to students who may not immediately feel comfortable with tools and hands-on learning?

Joey:  By having staff who have diverse backgrounds and having them focus on mentorship, by allowing the students to work on non-course work, and by allowing membership from any department on campus.

Students working on electronics projects at the Jacobs Institute.

The Maker Pass is a wonderful offering. What type of prerequisite safety/equipment training do students have to complete to get a Maker Pass?

Joey: After the GWS (general workshop safety) training, which all Maker Pass users complete, we have an “a la carte” approach to our required safety trainings — the modules are specific to the lab or machine, with half of each module being an online format and the second half being a hands-on check-off.

Laura: Any student, staff, or faculty member at Berkeley can get a Maker Pass, regardless of their field or experience. Our modular, “a la carte” approach to trainings allows us to operate at scale — this semester, we have over 800 Maker Pass users — while having the flexibility to serve this diverse population. The training program is also integrated with existing systems at Berkeley, like the campus’ learning management system. As students complete machine-specific trainings, their clearances are stored on their university ID cards, which serve as keycards for accessing appropriate labs or computer kiosks.

Which courses are the Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machines on campus predominantly used for?

Joey: Introduction To Manufacturing And Tolerancing (E 27) and  Software-Defined PCB Design (CS 194/294).

The Bantam Tools Desktop PCB Milling Machines (formerly known as the Othermill) in the Jacobs Institute at UC Berkeley.

What are some of the standout student projects that have been conceived at Jacobs Institute?

Laura: As an interdisciplinary hub, we see projects that span fields, focus areas, and experience levels. Students in our entry-level prototyping and fabrication course gain hands-on skills through projects like making Bluetooth-controlled vehicles, for example, while students in more advanced courses create projects like Helios (a connected device focused on firefighter safety) and Carpt (a concept for an autonomous platform).

With courses from a wide range of disciplines taking place here, we see projects ranging from Pum, a relief package airdrop device modeled after mono-wing maple leaf seeds (created as part of an integrative biology course, Bioinspired Design), to PESES, a proof-of-concept system focused on post-earthquake structural evaluation (from a civil engineering course, Design of Cyber Physical Systems).

How has Jacobs Institute grown and developed over the past two years? How was it initially received and what is the student culture around the Institute now?

Laura: Berkeley has a rich campus design ecosystem (prior to Jacobs Hall opening, students and faculty had been driving wide-ranging design efforts, and many of these campus community members helped us think through what the Jacobs Institute should be), and it was very exciting to have a new home for design innovation with the opening of Jacobs Hall.

Since then, we have continuously grown, adding new courses and programs and serving more students. In our first year, we served roughly 500 Maker Pass users per semester; so far this semester, we have over 800 active Maker Pass users, while 1200 students are currently enrolled in courses in the building. The building also houses a diverse mix of student-led programs, including club meetings and student-taught DeCal courses; these student-led initiatives play key roles in offering learning experiences beyond the classroom and in shaping the building’s culture.

As part of this growth, we’ve worked to invite new voices into our community, through student-facing offerings aimed at cross-campus audiences as well as through public events that connect us with broader communities in Berkeley and the Bay Area.

UC Berkeley students prototyping their project designs.

What are the plans for the future? Are there any specific types of programming currently in the works?

Laura: We’re thinking about how we can continue to expand our workshops and other opportunities to learn skills, complementing our equipment training curriculum. The Design Night programs are a first step in this direction, but there is more we can do. Beginning software usage, for example, can be a barrier to entry for some students with less technical backgrounds as they explore hands-on making. How can we help lower this barrier? Programming in this area could range from collecting and sharing vetted online resources to offering regular software workshops throughout the semester, with a focus on broadly applicable tools like Illustrator or Fusion360.

Along similar lines, we’re also thinking about approaches for helping students and faculty understand the different capabilities, processes, and materials associated with different machines in our space. For a generation of students that may be fairly new to the world of fabrication, 3D printing and laser-cutting can be obvious entry points — how can we prompt students to go further, exploring the full spectrum of tools and materials available to them? Developing resources and programs with this in mind is a goal as we continue to grow.

Note: First two images in article courtesy of Tim Griffith.