UC San Diego's EnVision: Meeting Industry Need for More Hands-on Experience

UC San Diego students soldering.

In January of 2016, University of California San Diego opened the doors to their nearly 3,000-square-foot makerspace classroom called the EnVision Arts and Engineering Maker Studio. Fully stocked with a wide variety of design, fabrication, and prototyping tools, EnVision is housed in UC San Diego’s Structural & Materials Engineering building.

The space was intended to increase the hands-on educational offerings available to students in both the visual arts and engineering. As described on the site, “It's an experiential teaching facility where both engineering and visual arts students are empowered to think, design, make, tinker, break and build again.”

Due to the overwhelming popularity of the space, now they’re in the process of building out a second, more advanced space. We spoke with EnVision director, mechanical engineer, educator and entrepreneur Jesse DeWald (pictured below in blue with a group of students) to learn more.

UC San Diego students designing and testing electronics projects.

How and why did the EnVision Maker Studio come about?

UC San Diego is the largest engineering school in California in terms of students. In terms of education, it’s known for its theory. EnVision got launched thanks to a collaboration between the UC San Diego Chancellor and the university’s Jacobs School of Engineering and Division of Arts & Humanities.

 A few things converged to make this happen. Industry was asking for engineers with more hands-on experience right out of school. Engineering students were asking for the same thing. At the same time, this was an opportunity to bring engineering and visual arts education together in interesting ways.  We wanted to create an environment where students could supplement the theory they’re learning with hands-on projects in the classroom.

For the engineering curriculum side of things, Albert Pisano, the dean of UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering, invited faculty to create hands-on classes that would be held in the 3,000-square-foot space. The EnVision Maker Studio is mainly a classroom, though, not a traditional project-based space. The space is fully integrated with six engineering departments and the visual arts department. They’ve all designed at least one freshman course for the space, and some have sophomore courses as well. There’s a lecturer section of the space, and the rest is dedicated to tools. We have a faculty committee dedicated to advocating for the space, and about 50 faculty members who are dedicated to using it. Having this much faculty support has been critical for getting the space established and well-used. 

We broke ground in November of 2015 and opened in January of 2016. There was a line of students going down the hallway wanting to use the equipment. We found a way to get students in the space in between class periods and called it “Open Access Hours." Engineering and visual arts students could come in then and work on whatever they wanted. We started Open Access Hours in March of 2016, and we’ve had about 3500 students come through since then.

Open access hours have become popular at UC San Diego’s Envision!

Who operates the space day to day?

There are 12 student volunteers who supervise for three hours per week and get 24/7 access and a small budget. 

How did you find the student volunteers?

They found me. There was such a need for something like this that many people wanted to volunteer. The policies that we have in the space come from the students. The students are listened to, and they really appreciate that. We also implemented an internship program because of the outpouring of interest.

The internship program was implemented during the summer of 2016. A survey of students identified that many users of the Maker Studio used only a small number of tools in the space. We wanted to create a set of tutorials and example projects that would give new students the confidence to use everything that is available to them. Just as importantly, we wanted to create a group of students that could become our leaders and mentors to other students. Each cohort went through leadership training provided by the Gordon Engineering Leadership Center.

Of more than 200 applications to the program, 99 were accepted. The students were divided into groups over the two summer sessions, each with a self-identified “team lead” that organized scheduling and deliverables and met on a weekly basis to provide progress reports.

The groups were assigned to one of ten projects; two of the projects were developing curriculum for introductory, hands-on chemical engineering and mechanical and aerospace engineering classes. The others were centered around making EnVision more user friendly and less intimidating, such as designing a collaborative space across the hall from EnVision, creating online tutorials and “warm-up projects” for some of the equipment, and week-long mini-projects.

Creating a robotic car.

What about entrepreneurship?

Part of the university’s mission statement involves cultivating entrepreneurism across all parts of campus. EnVision is very much part of this effort. Students must be empowered to make, design, build and iterate from the very beginning, and these skills need to be woven into the learning and practice of engineering theory. These are important precursors to entrepreneurship that we are developing in the engineering and visual arts students who use our space.

Personally, I want to show students that San Diego is just as good as Silicon Valley for innovation and a better place to live.

What's your biggest challenge?

Because the faculty have been so successful at building out hands-on curricula, we now have more time set aside for classes than we do for Open Access Hours We’d like to figure out a way to better serve the population of students in the classes as well as those that want to work on their own projects.

At the same time, entrepreneurship efforts around campus are currently somewhat siloed. One of EnVision’s goals is to more fully integrate our resources with the existing entrepreneurial ecosystem on campus.

Uc San Diego students testing electronics.

Photo credits (from top): Erik Jepsen, Nelvin C. Cepeda, Farshid Bazmandegan, Jacobs School of Engineering, Erik Jepsen