The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Exploratorium Will Spawn Student Brainstorms

Donald Fisher

Recently a team of students in the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering Department (MIE) designed and built an invention that would wow any dog owner. It’s a sort of dog-operated fetch-o-matic. The machine hurls a ball and is then re-triggered each time the canine retrieves it and drops it in a funnel. MIE Head Donald Fisher uses this example to demonstrate the kind of clever idea that needs a place to incubate within a warm and welcoming space, where his students can gather, connect, brainstorm, and collaborate. Such a space, which Fisher is calling an Exploratorium, is actually in the works and is scheduled to come online in September of 2010. The Exploratorium will be an approximately $150,000, 2500-square-foot home base for MIE students in the ELab building on campus.

It will feature an upgraded Computer Lab, teleconferencing hardware and software, several reconfigurable spaces where varying numbers of students can meet, room for guest speakers to deliver their talks, and a place for all the MIE students to call home.

“One of the things we’ve been trying to do since I became department head in August is communicate better with the students,” says Fisher, “letting them know what we’re trying to do to give them a better experience here, and getting their input on how we can help them. The Class-E [Class-Exploratorium] Campaign is a perfect example of this.”

The Exploratorium was sparked into life last August when MIE Administrative Officer Jennifer Suglia informed Fisher that the current Computer Lab is inadequate and talked about the successful new M5 student hub, which serves as a learning center, meeting place, and collaborative space in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. So Fisher said, “Let’s go for it!”

Since then, Fisher has brought on board Undergraduate Program Director James Rinderle, MIE’s Industrial Advisory Board, College of Engineering Development Director Paula Sakey, and the campus Physical Plant, which has drawn up plans for a space in and around the current Computer Lab. In less than two months, the Development Office has raised over $20,000 in gift commitments ranging from $250 to $2,500 from alumni with a goal of achieving $90,000 in private support. Then Fisher committed funds from student fees to the Exploratorium. Now, Voila! Half the project’s $150,000 goal is realized.

“And all of a sudden, something that was just a pipedream in August became the real thing!” exclaims Fisher. “Now we’re planning to open the Exploratorium in September of this year. I’m so excited about it because it’s one of the main areas in which I had hoped to grow the department and focus its energies.”

The Exploratorium, which will serve as the center of all student activities at MIE, is the focus of Fisher’s crusade to keep undergrads in the department bubbling over with enthusiasm about their education. Other efforts include new display space for student posters, a new LinkedIn web site, through which students can communicate with MIE alumni about job opportunities, and the efforts of Fisher and other faculty to meet and greet students during barbecues and other social events. The Exploratorium is designed, among all its other purposes, to become the center of the universe for MIE students and their social life.  

“We plan for the Exploratorium to have various reconfigurable spaces where students and faculty can group themselves and talk to each other about everything from ‘How’s life?’ to the blueprints for brilliant new inventions,” says Fisher. “It has both an educational purpose and a social purpose. We want the Exploratorium to be an incubator for collaboration and innovation that is impossible now, given our current space constraints.” Make Your Gift to the Exploratorium Online Now! Or call Paula Sakey, Director of Development, at (413) 545-6396 to learn more about how you or your company can make a gift and receive recognition as part of the CLASS-E Campaign. (January 2010)