When you step off the third-floor elevator in the Richard and Maggie C. Daley building in DePaul’s Loop campus, you’re greeted with a small conference room and some unassuming hallways. You can turn left or right. If you turn left, there are a set of water fountains, the men’s and women’s restroom and classrooms. If you turn right, there are 3D printers, screen printers, soldering stations and much more. You decide to turn right.
Tucked away in the Loop campus is the IRL, or the Idea Realization Lab, DePaul’s new student-run makerspace. The IRL is for the DePaul community and dedicated to bringing people’s ideas to life. A makerspace is a space for people to collaborate and work on projects while sharing ideas, equipment and knowledge.
The Idea Realization Lab is one big room filled to the brim with gear and equipment galore. Digital kiosks are set up for guests to check in when entering the room. Open seating — perfect for collaboration — is set up in the front. Rows of indigo blue storage containers divide the front half of the room between the accommodation and the electronics and soldering stations. A small room is tucked away that holds the majority of 3D printers. Another hidden space is the stop-motion animation lab. As guests dive deeper into the room, one of the back corners is set up like a classroom with big round tables, whiteboards and a moveable TV. On the other side of the room is the woodcutting station with the computer numerical control (CNC) router, miter and band saws, and a drill press. Last but not least, one can find the textiles section with a screen printer and sewing station.
The IRL is open to the entire DePaul community whether you’re student, staff or faculty.
“When our doors are open anyone can be in here that’s a DePaul community member,” said Jennifer Lawhead, head lab moderator. “Everyone’s welcome here when we’re here.”
To have access to any of the countless tools in the IRL, you must complete a workshop for the specific device or resource you want to use. This protocol ensures those working are using the machines correctly, safely and confidently.
Makerspaces encourage hands-on work and challenge the typical workspace environment. The IRL promotes collaboration and outside of the box thinking to develop students’ problem-solving skills.
“We teach thinking through making here, which is kind of like using your hands and prototyping to rapid problem solve,” said Lawhead. “This is in response to the changing technologies and how you can incorporate different types of majors into physical making.”
Different makerspaces have different purposes and DePaul’s IRL is an academic makerspace, so its focus primarily lies with the students. The IRL measures their success rate by student happiness. IRL employees see the space as a bridge between students and new or out-of-reach technology that students don’t always have access to due to money, DePaul only allowing specific majors access to specific equipment, or even being intimidated by the complicated tools.
“It’s definitely changed the access paradigm for a lot of students,” said Spencer Albin, a student worker at the IRL. “People might be intimidated by some of these tools, or they don’t think it’s something they can do, and a big idea of the space and the workshops is to eliminate that feeling.”
I can personally attest to that first feeling of intimidation when exploring all of the different resources at the IRL, but those feelings were quickly dispelled after my first class. I took a workshop for their CNC router tool, which is a very technical and fancy woodcutter. I had no prior experience with woodcutting before this workshop, so I was interested to see what I would be doing. The class was small—only three more people were there for the workshop.
Lawhead was our instructor and walked us through the workshop in the classroom before letting us try out the CNC router. She said she likes working with the CNC router because of the music-like sounds the machine emits when it goes to work. Before you cut anything out with the router, you have to tell the computer what you want your design to be. Lawhead recommended that first-timers like myself stick with simple designs the computer software provided. I chose the outline of a small but majestic dragon.
Before we could use the machine, Lawhead walked us through how to work it and was on standby if anyone needed help during their turn, which I did. After picking my dragon design, I readied the router first on the computer connected to it, and then the machine itself. The machine whirred to life, and I remembered the musical hum Lawhead mentioned. I listened to the device produce a series of loud hums that reminded me of the musical notes the mothership made in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
Unfortunately, the design I chose didn’t align with the dimensions of wood, and not all parts of my dragon showed up on the plywood. I could not keep my attempt at a dragon because the lab is strict about waste, and the staff try to reuse any material they can. While my project wasn’t a complete success, I learned that much like problem-solving and outside of the box thinking, working out an idea requires trial and error.
The majority of the times I have visited the IRL, the space is lightly populated.I was initially surprised because I expected lines out the door to use these cool and hard-to-access resources, but the IRL feels that not enough students know the space exists yet.
Charlie Hayes is a junior at DePaul who found out about the IRL through an email.
“It was actually crazy because I had been talking to my friend and was like I really want to learn how to sew and the email about the sewing workshop popped up,” said Hayes.
He said he enjoyed his workshop and goes back to the IRL to hang out and study now. Hayes said he likes the atmosphere and enjoys seeing what other people are working on.
“Somebody is always making something crazy, and it’s fun to go in and watch people,” said Hayes.
Jerwin Santiago, a sophomore at DePaul, discovered the IRL because of a class requirement. He studies interactive and social media and had to learn how to 3D print as part of an assignment. His class got an introduction to the lab and their 3D printing certification. Santiago said he appreciates the access he gets and the money he is saving from utilizing the materials in the lab.
“They have so much free stuff, you can use all of these materials and resources that I would not want to pay for,” said Santiago.
Access is an essential part of the IRL. Employees want students to feel like this can be their space for innovation and discovery. They want guests to feel confident in their skills, and giving them a space to hone those skills is crucial.
“The types of machines we’re using now are a lot more evident in the workplace. You can make something really intense on the computer and actually instruct machines to do it, and these are becoming more household objects,” said Lawhead. “It’s common for people to have access to things like 3D printers now, so we need to bring students up to speed to that.”
This is only the IRL’s second year operating, and there is plenty of room to grow. The staff is always looking for new workshops to bring to the lab, and they’re getting new 3D printers because demand is so high. The IRL staff’s best advice for students just discovering DePaul’s latest hidden gem is to try and get your workshops done quickly so you can get to creating ASAP.
Header image by Charlotte Foley