Tools of the trade

Here at Jacobs Hall, students often enter the building with exciting ideas, looking for specific tools to turn these ideas into reality. This spring, a new workshop series provided a pathway for more open exploration of Jacobs Hall’s equipment, allowing students to gain familiarity with wide-ranging tools and their capabilities before drawing on this knowledge to inspire future projects. In this series, launched this spring and collectively known as the Toolbox workshops, the Jacobs Institute’s team of design specialists have combined tools from the makerspace with their own interests, creating a unique lineup of workshops for students who want to expand their design skills. Let’s take a look at some of these workshops.


Laser Engraving for Valentine’s Day Gifts

The laser cutter is one of the Jacobs Institute’s most popular machines, used by students for projects from engraved signs to mechanizing small robots. Jacobs Hall’s laser cutters can cut through different sized plywood, acrylic, and other materials to bring students’ projects to life. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, design specialist Kent Wilson — whose background includes package and product design — led a workshop that took a personal approach to this workhorse tool, teaching students how to create laser-engraved photos and other gifts.

Lucia D’Onofrio, a workshop participant, says:
I learned how to use Photoshop and Illustrator specifically for laser engraving; photos must be edited in specific ways for engraving to turn out well, and this workshop taught me how to do that. I am planning on using laser cutting to make gifts for friends and family. From laser engraved photos to cute boxes, there are endless possibilities for personalized gifts!

Prototyping with Chocolate

If you’ve spent time in Jacobs Hall’s makerspace, you’ve seen it all: 3D-printed Campanile models, CNC-routed surfboards, wooden robots…but have you modeled with chocolate? The Prototyping with Chocolate workshop, led by artist and design specialist Mary Catherine Richardson, prompted students to model and 3D print the design of their choice, then create molds for chocolate. The skills students learned in this workshop will serve them beyond creating fun treats — the 3D printers they used are among the makerspace’s most popular machines for rapid prototyping, while the vacuum former can be used to create a wide variety of molds. See the vacuum former in action below.

After the workshop, student Noura Howell told us:
My favorite part was using the vacuum form machine! I never knew how those worked before. Mary Catherine also showed us a video of someone who made their own vacuum form machine, to make sure we knew it was a super simple device. I feel like a lot of times these different machines can seem really intimidating, but once you understand how they work they are often not that complicated, and it makes them more accessible.
Participant Christina Ngo added:
I enjoyed the challenge of designing for proper vacuum-forming while allowing for the most definition possible in my molds. With the upcoming Easter season, I plan on doing some more prototyping and mold making with chocolate.

​Mary Catherine shared her approach to creating Prototyping with Chocolate with us:

When considering the ​workshops I was hoping to offer, I had two considerations: what equipment in Jacobs is underutilized, and how can I provide a craft/art perspective and process in a design-oriented makerspace? The participants learned some helpful tricks in Fusion 360, and the workshop was a nice reprieve from normal schoolwork and projects. Next go round, I’ll have extra snacks to dip in the chocolate, like strawberries and pretzels!


Bleeps and Bloops

Electricity met sound in this workshop as design specialist Chris Parsell dove into the science behind synthesizers and electronic musical instruments, providing a foundation for creating new sounds. Students learned about basic circuitry and electronics for designing their own sounds and experimented with electrical components.

Chris explains:
I’ve always had a strong connection to music and, over the years, I’ve been putting together a recording setup at home. Much of what I’ve learned is tangentially related to what we do at Jacobs, so I hoped to find students with similar interests and to illuminate the subject.
My interest in listening to music was something that I inherited from parents, who appreciated lots of music. My own interest in electronic music started with hearing sample-based hip hop and dance music and then discovering artists who were using those same instruments in ways that opened up whole different sonic territories.
Making music, in the way that I do, came from this lifelong interest in music and my studies in architecture and digital fabrication. It was after I started to enjoy playing with the “systems level thinking” of digital fabrication tools (laser cutters, CNC machines, and 3D printers) that I saw crossover with the systems of electronic music. Since then, I’ve been assembling and playing with a studio setup at home consisting of synthesizers and various recording equipment.
I wanted to organize this workshop because the equipment is somewhat inaccessible and it’s perhaps not commonly understood what electronic musical instruments actually do. A lot of modern music is, in one way or another, electronic and lot of great music is recorded by people experimenting at home.
Its a niche subject, but understanding these instruments involves a lot of concepts tangentially related to the other things we do at Jacobs. By having students build their own small instrument (the Atari Punk Console) and then connecting it to other instruments, I hoped to demonstrate the idea that these instruments are malleable. It’s a thing that can start as small as a breadboard and can grow as one learns and explores different techniques.

Balloon Fighting League

Gary Gin, who focuses on electronics and robotics and is a well-known presence on BattleBots, led a workshop in which students built simple robots, learning key skills along the way, and then competed in a “Balloon Fighting League.” See the results below:


Other workshops in the Toolbox series this spring included Pillow Talk — which prompted students to generate patterns with a laser cutter before using a sewing machine to bring these patterns to life — and CNC + Table Saw Plywood Furniture Making, in which students gained skills with digital fabrication and woodworking tools as they built their own three-legged stools. After a successful first season, the Toolbox workshops will return next semester, enabling students to get to know the Jacobs Institute’s design specialists and explore new tools in the makerspace.

Want to learn more? See this spring’s full workshop lineup and meet the Jacobs Institute’s team of design specialists.

By Junaid Maknojia, Jacobs Institute storytelling assistant