Inside the Institute of Making

Red jelly and circuit board on a white table. A neon orange wire connects the two.

16 March 2016 3 minute read

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Always on the look-out for weird and wonderful science ‘stuff’, we were of course drawn to UCL’s brilliantly titled Institute of Making. Described as a ‘cross-disciplinary research club’, the Institute is the brainchild of Mark Miodownik, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Zoe Laughlin and Martin Conreen.

When asked what engineering meant to him, Mark explained that it was more than just understanding how an object worked; it was taking that knowledge and applying it outside of the labs. “It’s taking the scientific base, and making it in the world. That’s how you make something wonderful, something really incredible.”It is taking this mantra of making and exploring materials that have led Mark and his team to start up the research programme at the Institute of Making. Open to all students and staff at UCL, the Institute is a research hub with a difference. On the one side stands the Materials Library, a collection of some of the most remarkable materials on earth; and on the other, the MakeSpace. Stacked with the materials and machinery of an engineer’s dreams, the MakeSpace is the ultimate playground for budding makers, providing not only the technical training, but the support and inspiration to bring their ideas into being.

The goal of the Institute is to celebrate ‘stuff’, combining academic research with hands-on experience, for both the public and its members to enjoy, and in an open day on Saturday 12 March 2016, the Institute rolled up its warehouse door and welcomed guests to do just that. The celebration marked the third birthday of the Institute, and visitors were invited to enjoy all of the elements of a traditional party, but of course with a maker’s twist.

Never content with just an ordinary bowl of jelly for example, the makers at the Institute wired up an Arduino computer to a series of moulded jellies, capable of turning the electrical charge in our bodies into sound just by jiggling the jellies.

In place of the more traditional birthday cake, the Institute of Making laid on a microwavable feast, allowing visitors to craft their own rainbow creations in sponge before microwaving them into a delicious cake.

And where most would be content with a candle or two to celebrate their birthday, chemistry PhD student Anna Ploszajski instead showed off her home-made fire trumpet. Creating a Ruben’s tube from a length of copper piping drilled with holes and filled with propane gas, Anna was able to beautifully demonstrate the formation of sound waves in fire as she played her trumpet nearby.

When it came to party favours, artist Helen Carnac introduced guests to the process of enamelling and even gave visitors the opportunity to create their own enamelled masterpieces to take home with them. Favours could even be carried away in screen printed bags, printed with a variety of birthday designs on-site to commemorate the event!

As well as promoting the wonders of the materials that make up our world, the Institute of Making is actively involved in widening credible scientific research outside of traditional educational institutions. Led by PhD student Liz Corbin, the Open Workshop Network is an exciting research project focussed on the growing ‘Makers Movement’ that is taking hold across London.

Recent years have seen a worldwide increase in the popularity of community-led spaces, known as hackspaces, makerspaces or FabLabs. These spaces provide the perfect opportunity for people to gather and share their interest in all things techy, sharing ideas and experiences in open-access, collaborative workshops. The Open Workshop Network project is working alongside more than 39 workshops across London and aims to deliver an in-depth analysis of the successes and pitfalls of running community-operated ‘making spaces’, offering a tool to support and develop the maker community as a whole.

To experience first-hand the products of the Institute of Making, check out the public programme, or head over to the Octagon Gallery, UCL for the Dangerous Diaries exhibition. Running until mid-March 2016, the exhibition explores the hazards that have faced materials scientists of the past.

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