Graduate students unveil their Makers inventions

From across the table, the oatmeal canister, wrapped in red duct tape and posted atop a short wooden pole, resembled a whimsical lamp you might find on someone’s nightstand.

But the makeshift contraption had another purpose: To feed your cat when you’re not home.

“I don’t have a cat but if I did I would want to have this,” said Sarah Swiderski, one of three School of Information graduate students who created the automated feeder as part of their final project in “Makerspaces, Maker Culture and Maker Tools,” a course taught by clinical associate professor Kristin Fontichiaro.

The course explores makers culture, which traces its roots to guilds and county fairs from centuries past. Today, that culture includes tinkerers, artisans, hobbyists and entrepreneurs, who often work in communal spaces, swapping ideas, expertise and tools.

The 20 students in Fontichiaro’s class were tasked with using an Arduino – a single-board microcontroller – and an existing code -- to bring their own inventions or ideas to life. The projects were presented during the final week of the semester in “The Secret Lab” at the Ann Arbor District Library, which has partnered with the School of Information.

Swiderski and her team, Celia Mulder and Casey Gamble, tallied nearly a dozen hours on their project, which required considerable tweaking to get the timing elements right. If the door at the bottom of the canister, for instance, was open too long, too much cat food would pour out.

"All of our challenges were solved with copious amounts of duct tape, frequent consultations with Steve, and a lot of group brainstorming and problems solving,” said Mulder, referring to Steve Teeri, who manages The Secret Lab.

Other students used Arduinos to create decorative night lights (with soothing colors that changed in accordance with the level of darkness), a chair that buzzed to let you know it was time to stretch your legs, and a thirsty flamingo made from a 3-D printer that automatically watered your plants when soil moisture was low.

The challenge for many was not only to collect or create the necessary parts for their contraptions but also to determine the right coding to trigger the action they desired.

George Keppler, a graduate student in the Stamps School of Art and Design, logged about 25 hours working on his CareChair, which buzzes to encourage the sitter to get up and move around. Keppler constructed the chair himself, measuring and cutting 2-by-4s and scrap wood, sanding, painting and staining. He also had to learn how to make a small DC motor buzz and connect all the components with coding.

“There’s nothing special about the chair other than the shelf (which houses the motor underneath the cushioned seat),” he said, presenting his CareChair and receiving a round of applause. “I’m really happy with the final form. It looks like a normal chair. It doesn’t look like anything digital.” 

There were failures. Some students shared detached components from projects that didn't quite come together. Others simply recounted their efforts. Among those that didn't quite get off the ground were another automated cat feeder, a monitor to display daily weather conditions with icons, and an automated doorbell that would alert your cellphone when someone was ringing.

The effort was not so much about success or failure but about the creative journey, Fontichiaro said. “Part of the goal here is to test these ideas. Some of these stories have different types of endings,” she said.

The students, however, proved successful in making a true makers community.

 “I was really tickled,” Fontichiaro said. “I was really impressed with the warmth and support they showed one another, sharing what they knew with one another as they were working on their projects, and their ability to be honest with one another about what worked and what didn’t. It was a rather extraordinary group of people.”

Here's another Makers project to check out: Zoe Wilkinson Saldana and Kayla Carucci's maKerZine.