Cornell Engineering Connects Young Makers with Collaborators

Future engineers have an online space to get help with their projects and learn skills.

by Tanya Roscorla / June 29, 2017 0

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A few years ago, Dawn McWilliams went to the New York Maker Faire, where she saw kids and adults show off the things they made. It was there that the director of communications for Cornell Engineering saw a need to support young kids who didn't have access to maker education in their schools.

"Makers are engineers in the making," she realized, and many kids start out interested in engineering. But after age 9 or 11, a lot of them don't think they can really be engineers, particularly if they're girls or minorities. So, they move away from the field.

McWilliams realized that Cornell Engineering could help these kids stay in the field. That's where CollabSpace was born.  

After conducting focus groups with children, Cornell discovered that they needed four things: a place to post their projects and get feedback; to learn skills; to communicate with others; and to ask mentors for help. In 2015, Cornell Engineering opened up a beta site on the Ning online platform to meet these needs, and over the last two years, the community has grown to more than 200 members. In June, Cornell Engineering took the project out of beta and launched a custom-built website funded by an alumni donation of $150,000. 

The site was initially designed to give students an online makerspace to collaborate in if their school didn't have any support for their efforts. But during the ISTE Conference, McWilliams discovered a secondary use for the tool. Teachers came by their booth, and once they heard it didn't cost them anything to participate, they wanted to use it with their students.

To use CollabSpace, students sign up so they can be members. Then they can log in, participate in project discussions, ask for help on a project and learn skills they'll need to complete different projects through a partnership with Instructables. They can post their own projects they've completed or get project ideas from what others have posted. 

Cornell Ph.D. and post-doctorate students will give students feedback when they ask for it, and if kids want to be connected with a mentor, then they can fill out a form. People who want to be mentors also complete forms that Cornell Engineering vets. 

Until now, four people on the marketing team at Cornell Engineering have been keeping CollabSpace running. But as it grows, it may eventually move into one of the engineering departments.

It may be unusual for a marketing team to run a project like this. However, it's been a nice change of pace for communications' staff who typically write about faculty research.

"This is exciting to reach out to a younger community that is up-and-coming engineers, ultimately,” said Jessica Edmister, communications specialist.