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UW Professor Develops Digital Maker Lab to Encourage Creative Collaborations

March 18, 2016
man looking at a 3-D printing unit and small figurines
Brandon Gellis, a UW assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History, discusses how a mold for a plastic dinosaur replica is made using a 3-D printer in the 3-D ArtScience and STEM Maker Laboratory, located in the Visual Arts Building. (UW Photo)

A new digital maker laboratory on campus is set up to encourage multidisciplinary teams of students to brainstorm and generate creative research using emergent “maker” techniques; develop emerging technologies that will enhance existing creative practices; and gain a better overall understanding of how art and science can support each other.

Last fall, Brandon Gellis, an assistant professor in the University of Wyoming’s Department of Art and Art History, converted a conference room in the Visual Arts Building into a 300-square-foot digital maker and fabrication lab.

The facility, known formally as the UW 3-D ArtScience and STEM Maker Laboratory, opened in October and already has been used by a number of researchers and students in three of Gellis’s classes: Graphic Design III: Branding in Virtual Spaces, Advanced Typography, and Computer Graphics II: Experiments in 3-D Forms. Two student interns are learning hands-on approaches to digital making.

The lab includes a large-format printer that is being converted to print out fabric textiles. The space also contains two 3-D printers that can be used for fabrication of teaching specimens and producing 3-D modeled forms; two large-format photo printers; a vinyl cutter; and an industrial-laser cutter and etcher, all of which are used for data visualization, fabrication and creative research.

It’s a promising start for the maker lab. But, Gellis has bigger plans for its functionality and impact. He is applying for a $150,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to fund more digital maker equipment.

“Currently, the lab has a few items,” Gellis says. “What I budgeted for in this NSF proposal is a fully functioning teaching and research laboratory, a state-of-the-art facility that will encourage faculty and student interdisciplinary research opportunities.

“I will keep applying for this funding until I get it,” he adds.

The funding, if secured, would pay for high-performance computers and software that will be powerful enough to generate complex three-dimensional, virtual and time-based models; a computer numeric controlled mill (CNC); a pair of high-resolution stereolithography 3-D printers; stationary and portable 3-D scanners; and a high-resolution digital microscope. Ultimately, the digital maker lab is intended to be made available to collaborators and students.

“I’ve asked for a large amount of money that would fund these interdisciplinary art and science collaborations between faculty, students and research opportunities,” Gellis says. “It’s important to get art and humanities students into STEM laboratories to work with other science graduate students. For me, the whole thing is about collaboration and what can come from it.”

table and wall display of items created in lab
These are some samples of laser-cut-and-etched creative research made by students in Brandon Gellis’s Graphic Design III: Branding in Virtual Spaces class. (Brandon Gellis Photo)

Initial funding has come from UW’s Office of Research and Economic Development; the College of Arts and Sciences; and the Department of Art and Art History. Grant collaborators include: Marcel Kornfeld, a professor of anthropology; Anna Chalfoun, an assistant professor of zoology and physiology, and assistant unit leader of the Wyoming Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit; Brandon McElroy, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics; Mark Clementz, an associate professor of geology and geophysics, and director of the UW Geological Museum; Thomas Minckley, an associate professor of geography; and Laura Vietti, museum and collections manager of the UW Geological Museum.

“I am continuously looking for ways to better understand how STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) applications may increase university and state broader outreach impacts,” Gellis says. “This technology in this lab will help create more evocative visual representations of scientific data and principles.”

Gellis will collaborate with the UW Libraries Digital Collections to make archived materials available to the public.

“As far as I know, this would be the first art and science collaborative visualization and fabrication lab on campus,” Gellis says. “I really hope others, with similar interests, will want to work together to strengthen the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) community at UW.

“Not everyone is aware that art and science have a symbiotic relationship,” Gellis adds. “Often, art informs science just as science informs art.”

This April, students from two of Gellis’s classes are contributing to the UW Art   Museums’s exhibition, titled “Emancipating the Past: Kara Walker’s Tales of Slavery and Power,” on loan from the Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation.  Students in his Advanced Typography course are building typographic portraits of social justice activists, while students in his Computer Graphics II course are creating 3-D forms inspired by notions of social justice as well as Walker’s work in the exhibition. The student exhibition will be on display April 13-May 2 in the Centennial Complex Gallery.

In addition to creating art and science research applications for UW faculty and students, Gellis says a major goal of the maker lab is to make science tangible and accessible to the public. He also is collaborating with two University of Denver faculty members and intends to leverage the functionality of the maker lab to develop a Rocky Mountain maker network.

“I also would like to incorporate Wyoming teachers and K-12 students,” he says. “Campus and statewide access will increase public awareness of what research is coming out of this type of laboratory. And, everything we create here helps to promote research outcomes that, in turn, can increase the accessibility of published and presented research.”

Gellis recently received funding for his own creative research that will come directly out of this lab. He expects, either in May or June, to hear whether he receives the NSF grant funding.


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