November 20, 2017

Westport Maker Space Expands with Robots, SolidWorks Courses, and Volunteer Training

Connecticut’s Westport Library this month has drawn attention from media outlets around the globe, thanks to the acquisition of a pair of fully programmable NAO Evolution robots—named Vincent and Nancy—from Paris-based Aldebaran Robotics. A September 29 story in the Wall Street Journal led to coverage in dozens of newspapers and blogs including the Los Angeles Times, NPR, BBC America, several Fox affiliates, and news outlets in Russia, Spain, and Vietnam. The new robots, which can be programmed to walk, dance, and talk using the Python programming language, will be used in leveled coding classes that will become part of Westport’s growing Maker space program.

“This media frenzy has been hysterical! It’s been wonderful.” Maxine Bleiweis, executive director for Westport Library, told LJ.

Funding for the robots—which retail for $8,000 apiece—was provided by a family foundation that “wanted to fund really exciting projects,” Bleiweis said. The buzz indicates that the robots have already accomplished at least part of that goal, and these stories are certainly a welcome shift away from mainstream media narratives that often describe libraries as outdated institutions. But setting aside their cute, tiny humanoid appearance, Vincent and Nancy are much more than a PR stunt to show the world that libraries offer more than books. The robots represent the latest serious investment of time and funding that Westport has been devoting to hands-on learning efforts. Bleiweis made a direct comparison to subscription costs.

“When you think about $8,000, and then you think about all of the money that you might be spending on Dun & Bradstreet or Moody’s—all of the resources that libraries have used in the past—it’s very similar to thinking ‘we’re going to buy this expensive thing and we’re going to share it with lots and lots of people,’” she said.

Westport Robot ReadingBleiweis later added that Maker spaces are in line with modern views on education. Bloom’s Taxonomy, a tiered set of learning objectives that has been the foundation of many teaching philosophies since it was first published in 1956, has been revised to include “creating” as the peak learning objective—once a student begins to truly understand a subject, he or she can begin creating unique content.

And if a library is hoping to get kids and teens interested in coding, it’s tough to imagine a better hook than a programmable talking robot that can dance. Westport is already planning to have programmers test their skills with robot dance contests and poetry competitions at their fourth annual Maker Faire next spring.

Some patrons may be disappointed that the new robots “can’t be available and live on the floor all the time,” said Bill Derry, Westport’s director of innovation. The robots are delicate, precision machines, and their joints could potentially lead to hand injuries if children were allowed to play with them unsupervised.

“They’ll lock on your fingers,” Bleiweis explained. “It’s not like an elevator door that senses you and opens back up. They’re not for people to touch.”

However, there will be regularly scheduled viewing times when people can see Vincent and Nancy in action, and the robots will be displayed in a “house” where they’ll be available for viewing at any time, with a nearby touchscreen monitor showing videos of the robots.

Community creation

Among public libraries, Westport was one of the earliest adopters of the Maker space movement, hosting its first Mini Maker Faire in April 2012, which drew 2,200 visitors. In July 2012, the library followed up by installing a large, open structure outfitted with workbenches and 3D printers in a prominent location of its great hall. A “Maker in Residence” program, featuring extended programs led by local experts, was launched shortly afterward, and the space has continued to grow and thrive ever since.

In September 2013, Westport was awarded a grant of almost $250,000 from the Institute of Museum and Library Services for its project “MakerSpace 2.0: Retinkering Libraries.” Reviewers of the project proposal were enthusiastic about Westport’s potential to explore questions regarding the changing nature of public library usage and how libraries can engage a community with participatory learning projects.

These Maker space true believers have already begun to see great results. Westport’s ongoing efforts to support the space, including the Maker in Residence programs, have helped establish a virtuous cycle in which residents have begun working on their own projects and helping one another independently, according to Derry.

“We have about 27 volunteers every week who both work in the Maker space and teach,” he explained. “And what has happened is that all levels of people have come in with new ideas and products.”

Derry estimates that in less than three years, at least 10 actual products have been prototyped using the Maker space’s five 3D printers, such as SafeRide, a small device that links up with an Android app via Bluetooth to lock smartphones and prevent texting while users are inside a running car.

Inventor Scott Rownin “did all of his prototyping here, and in return, he would teach a lot of groups,” Derry explained. Other Westport Maker space users “got to have a mentor who was an inventor and was producing and demonstrating how to design, prototype, and innovate.”

In another example that Derry cited, a psychiatry student from Yale University used the Maker space to design and fabricate customized containers for a research project.

And, in a sign of how Westport  is working to appeal to users with a broad range of skillsets, a local biomedical engineer recently encouraged Westport to purchase a $1,000 educational license for SolidWorks computer-aided design (CAD) software. Classes on the software have attracted a new contingent of trained engineers into the library and the Maker space.

“It really draws in people who are usually high level,” Derry said. “Mostly postgraduate members who want to get their skill sets toned up.”

Separately, the software is also being used to facilitate collaboration. Derry said that a former engineer with expertise in SolidWorks was introduced to a local inventor who had created a rough prototype of a tool to fix sockets on roof gutters. The engineer helped refine the prototype using SolidWorks, and then a 3D printer was used to fabricate the new tool.

“Things like that are beginning to happen,” Derry said. “Someone’s idea gets elevated in a very short time, and they create a relationship.”

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Matt Enis About Matt Enis

Matt Enis (menis@mediasourceinc.com; @matthewenis on Twitter) is Associate Editor, Technology for Library Journal.