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College students get a new outlet for energy: Making stuff

January 26, 2019

Growing up in a house full of carpenters and mechanics, Kalleen Kelly always felt a bit out of place. “I’m the black sheep of the family in going to college,” the University of North Carolina junior said. And that’s why her hobby so far at UNC Chapel Hill is a bit of a surprise. “I never really thought I would be someone working in a workshop,” she said. Kelly is one of more than 4,000 students who have discovered UNC’s Maker Space called “BeAM” -- as in, “be a maker.” It’s a space filled with 3D printers, laser cutters and good old fashioned power tools.

Kelly is trained on a power saw and is able to help other students cut wood for projects. “I was able to connect with my family in a way I never knew I could,” she said. “Maker” is a vague term -- and that seems to be the point.

“A maker is someone who makes things that you hold in your hand,” said Rich Superfine, the faculty director of the BeAM Network. UNC currently has three maker spaces where any student or faculty member can make whatever they can dream up. The only restriction: no weapons. “There are so many students that come into this space and never thought they would learn to use a power tool,” said Superfine. “We call it an ‘empower tool’ because there’s a personal growth that goes on when you are suddenly using something you were scared of.”

“Sometimes an adult will come up to me and ask me out of spite, ‘Oh are you on social media?’ And I’m like, ‘No, I am designing a project for BeAM -- a laser cut design or something like that,’” said UNC student Charlotte Dorn. Other students enjoy using the space to fix things. Alexander Ellsworth has restored several pieces of vintage stereo equipment. “Understanding that maybe we can take something old, something not working and make it work,” said Ellsworth. The space is part educational, part social and is a way for students to break the stereotype of a generation hooked on screens. “The students of today have spent a lot of time on computers,” said Judith Cone, who is the vice chancellor for innovation. “We needed to get them away from that and get them into hands-on experience and making things.”

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