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Epstein Lives Her Makerspace Dream as New Engineer-in Residence at M5

Shira Epstein

Shira Epstein

One of the most overlooked but critical features of the M5 makerspace in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department is the 25 or so white boards lining the walls in numerous places around the facility or waiting to be installed. Such white boards didn’t appear as if by magic. Deploying them, in fact, and getting them installed on the walls, is one of the many organizational duties of new M5 Engineer-in-Residence Shira Epstein, who typically works behind the scenes to organize, stabilize, and categorize the day-to-day operations in the makerspace.

Though decidedly low tech in essence, the white board is as crucial to 21st-century electrical and computer engineers as was the slide rule to NASA engineers in the early space race of the mid-20th century. As Epstein says, “Undergraduate students use this space very heavily to make contact with each other and learn together, and the white boards are really the natural extension of those connections.”

White boards are merely the tip of the iceberg. This semester M5 has more than 130 members who have signed up and completed their mandatory orientation, and there are another 100 or so who have signed up but haven’t yet done their orientation sessions. On average M5 has about 250 unique users every semester. Supervising them are nine staff members, including M5 Director Baird Soules, Epstein, and the seven student employees she oversees: Jeremy Paradie, Dan Travis, Anthony Chan, Chidinma Ejiofor, Jordan Gummeson, Igor Federyuk, and Sean Johnson. As is a student M5 staffer before Epstein arrived, Paradie served as the de facto manager before her and transferred his responsibilities to her when the fall 2017 semester started.

M5 is a now decade old, after opening in 2008, and keeps evolving almost as fast as electrical and computer engineering does. “Most of the improvements we’re making currently involve cleanliness, order, making things accessible, labeling everything, and making the whole operation safe,” says Epstein. “You know, managing the organization of the space.”

For instance, one thing Epstein is working on now is a new registration program for the senior design projects, whose students come to M5 in need of parts and technical advice. “So we’re working on a data base that would have all our inventory for students to browse through and register which parts they’ve incorporated into their projects,” explains Epstein. “The senior design students have their own lab down the hall, but we have lots of parts here that they need. We also provide technical support for the senior design students, who have countless questions about their projects.”

This semester for the first time M5 has rolled out a virtual white board full of new features. “For starters,” says Epstein, “we have the concept of membership. Previously, people came in here, and they were supposed to be part of the ECE department in order to use this space, but we didn’t have any implementation or authorization or training system. And there were a lot of questions about the equipment and how it is used. Now it’s all formally organized.”

All ECE students automatically qualify for membership in M5, but now they have to fill out membership forms, they have to attend group orientation sessions given by Epstein, and they have to be issued certifications on various tools they are trained to use. Students from other engineering majors can apply for membership also.

“So staff are here, including me, every day from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., although sometimes they stay later,” says Epstein. “We’re not open unless there’s a person in a supervisory role in here. When I’m here, I help people with the 3D printers, help find particular parts, instruct people on various machines here, respond to requests for training and certification on different machines, I provide group orientation sessions for new members, I assign storage bins, and I put together purchase orders when we need new parts. You know, the whole thing.”

During orientation, Epstein walks the students through all the rooms, shows them all the tools and their capabilities, so they know what exists, then she informs them about all the safety and organizational rules. Later, at some point after the original orientation sessions, she does training and certification on particular tools.

Epstein says her most critical duties are supervising the student staff members. She organizes staff meetings, writes up the minutes, delegates staff responsibilities, checks to make sure those duties are carried out, and organizes the staff schedule and calendar.

She adds that “Another duty I have is to identify good candidates for future student staff members. Other than myself, student employees entirely staff the space. So the staff regularly turns over due to yearly graduations. That means we must constantly be identifying people who would make good staffers.”

Because of her electrical engineering degree from the University of Southern California, Epstein was familiar with most of the equipment at M5 before she arrived at UMass Amherst. A native of Los Angeles, she has moved around the country since graduating from USC in 2012. Her life nevertheless has one very unifying common denominator: makerspaces. She was working with and within makerspaces wherever she lived, including the very successful nonprofit Sector67 in Madison, Wisconsin, from 2014 to 2017.

Epstein came to UMass primarily to work on a campus-wide makerspace, but that effort is still very early in the planning process. This university makerspace will be aimed at establishing the kind of creative space geared for all students at UMass Amherst, regardless of major, and situated in the Fine Arts Center. That space would have not only a full cadre of electronic and computer engineering equipment, but would also have full-fledged machine and wood shops, including such equipment as water jets and laser cutters.

“When I moved here,” Epstein concludes, “I knew I wanted to continue working on makerspaces. They are really special to me. The training I have from spending all those years working in makerspaces, seeing what does and doesn’t work in creative communities like these, translates into the current job I have in M5.” (December 2017)