The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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M5’s “Hackerspace” Gets Good Media Coverage

An article written about the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department’s M5 facility and its student-run recording business, Studio M5, recently appeared in the Hampshire Gazette, written by staff writer Kristin Palpini. The article was entitled, “UMass' hackerspace, Studio M5, promotes real-world learning.” M5 offers free access to electronic components, specialized test equipment, a design-oriented reference library, open hours staffed by undergraduates, a “junk room” with old electronics for students to use for parts or reverse-engineering, an instructional lab dedicated to electronics hardware and computing, an audio engineering workstation, and a place for ECE students to call home.

Studio M5 is an enterprising recording studio launched this spring by six students in the ECE department to attract business from local musical groups that have trouble finding affordable recording facilities. Here’s an excerpt from the article.

Electrical engineering doesn't happen in a textbook. So in 2006, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst opened its first hackerspace, an open lab for undergraduate electrical computer engineering students to test out what they learn in the classroom and push the boundaries of science.

Communities of electrical engineering hobbyists began forming hackerspaces (named in part because participants hack equipment and ideas apart, take what they like, and rework it to suit their own designs) in the mid-2000s. There are more than 500 hackerspaces in the United States in addition to spaces across the globe, according to hackerspace.org.

The spaces can be found on campuses and in rented buildings. Hackerspaces are usually funded by a college or member dues. At UMass, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department funds the space. Much of the equipment that gets hacked is donated to the department when UMass schools and colleges receive upgrades.

"They don't want to learn in a vacuum. Students want to pursue their own projects and ideas outside the requirements of the curriculum," said T. Baird Soules, director of the Marcus Hall hackerspace, or M5. "It enables them to build whatever they come up with."

At UMass the space includes several rooms, a multitude of closets, computers, scads of old equipment, cable, and an open "great" room where students can work on projects together - an important piece of any hackerspace. Bringing like-minded engineers and artists together to work on projects and pitch ideas is the goal of hackerspaces.

In addition to Studio M5, UMass hackerspace students participate in multi-semester robot-development projects, design and build-out electronic set pieces for the theater department, and create green energy projects. Students can also organize non-credit courses to teach each other skill sets not available in the classroom – like music recording, for example.

A blog chronicling the space' s activities is online at www.ecs.umass.edu/ece/m5/.

In the future, Soules said, he would like to build a machine shop inside M5. It makes sense for M5, he said, as many student projects require the creation of prototypes only a machine shop could form. "Engineering students may want to do their required work here, but there is also a hobby side that we're enabling. We want both sides of that world here," Soules said. (June 2010)