Learning through Making at Open Lab

Students in virtual reality goggles in Open Lab

While teaching a neuroanatomy course, Department of Neuroscience Lecturer Erika Fanselow noticed students struggled to understand the brain’s complex architecture from 2D representations of neural structures.

Through working with the University Center for Teaching and Learning’s Open Lab resources, Fanselow incorporated 3D printing into her course—to great success. “It’s stunning to see the immediate look of comprehension when a student looks at their model and literally sees how the brain structures they’ve been learning about fit together,” said Fanselow.

Spaces for making and learning

The Open Lab is a makerspace that provides resources to support anyone in the Pitt community incorporating emerging technologies into their teaching or learning.

Will Hinson, emerging technology specialist in the Teaching Center, recalled its evolution from Classroom Services, which, when examining new technologies in 2016, purchased 3D printers for teachers to create custom models.

Word quickly spread. “As more people made requests and started to show interest, we spun off Open Lab as a separate department in the Teaching Center,” Hinson said.

Recently, the Teaching Center began a collaboration with the University Library System, resulting in the Open Lab @ Hillman space; usage has skyrocketed. “We’re now seeing 80 to 100 people drop into our spaces every week—and that’s not even counting people attending workshops or class sessions with us,” said Open Lab Manager Aaron Graham. 

Incorporating new technology into teaching

The Open Lab continues to investigate and incorporate new technologies and tools.

“Because we’re part of the Teaching Center, we’ve focused on how technologies can be integrated into teaching, how instructors effectively use this in their courses and how students use them in projects,” said Sera Thornton, learning scientist and teaching consultant. “We work with instructors to design lessons or projects that use our technologies to address what they want their students to learn—just because we have a hammer doesn’t mean every course is a nail.”

Multiple University departments have worked with Open Lab to integrate resources. In the Department of Englishcritical gaming courses explore how virtual reality can be implemented in games, while language courses have used the technology to explore foreign cities. The Open Lab @ Hillman features five virtual reality stations and has accommodated classes of 20 or more students.

Students in the Pitt in Sicily Study Abroad project used 360-degree video, which allows viewers to be “in” the picture and look around as the video progresses, to create immersive experiences about archaeological sitesView Pitt in Sicily’s YouTube playlist.

Open Lab also has vinyl and laser-cutting and engraving equipment that has been used to produce topographical maps, active learning puzzles, architectural models and other course materials.

Open usage

Open Lab has no restriction on what projects people can use its resources for, which makes it a perfect place to visit during the Year of Creativity.

“The only rule is that you learn how to use the equipment yourself to design and make whatever you want to make—we want you to walk out not only with your new thing, but also with a new transferrable skill that will help your learning going forward,” said Thornton. “And everything in our space is free, from the training and the equipment to the materials the equipment uses, whether people are using it for class-oriented purposes or not. We want to remove the barriers to you learning that new skill.”

“We want people to feel free to come in and make whatever they want to because then that drives their interest in engagement in the technology,” said Hinson. “The more people are familiar with it, the more ways people will find to use it in their learning.”

To set up a consultation about incorporating emerging technology into your teaching, or to explore Open Lab, use this online survey form.