Open Lab opens doors for new skills for Pitt students to cultivate


John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

A Pitt student works in Hillman’s Open Lab Room behind 3D printed objects.

By Gabriella Garvin, Staff Writer

Whether it’s the need for a last minute Christmas gift, a special school project or a few hours to relax in a virtual reality — the Open Lab is equipped to help students with endeavors.

There are currently two Open Labs on campus, one on the first floor of the Hillman Library and one in the basement of Alumni Hall. The Open Lab located at Alumni Hall is part of the Center for Teaching and Learning, and the lab at the Hillman location is a collaboration of both the Center and the University Library System.

Aaron Graham, the manager of the Open Lab Makerspace, said the goal of the space is to promote a well-rounded learning environment through a number of resources, including virtual reality, 3D printing, laser cutting and engraving vinyl. Graham said they’re also looking to add sewing resources in the space.

“Our mission is to support teaching and learning at the University,” Graham said. “We provide training resources and equipment to students, faculty and staff.”

Jess FitzPatrick, the director of the Digital Narrative and Interactive Design major and a lecturer in the English department, is a frequent visitor of the labs. She thinks the labs have been very helpful for DNID majors, as they offer various technologies for them to explore the world.

“The DNID is a combination of the School of Computing and the English department for students who are really interested in experiences and careers that deal with world building through writing and code,” FitzPatrick said. “We have three kinds of branches — game design, critical making and online media, and the open lab supports all of those branches.”

FitzPatrick believes that the Open Labs enhances the quality of the classes she teaches, allowing students and staff to work collaboratively.

“Now, when I’m able to bring classes for full class period visits, the best thing is working collaboratively with the people who run the open lab to design learning goals that really take full advantage of what they have,” FitzPatrick said.

John Blair | Senior Staff Photographer

FitzPatrick said this collaborative style of learning makes diverse resources accessible to her classes in the lab, enabling students to better understand the content they are learning.

“If we’re in a narrative and technology class, and we’re talking about virtual reality and how immersive media challenges the way that we put together a story, bringi  as ng a class and setting up a list of different titles in different genres that they’re going to experience and then talking through those experiences as player and audience,” FitzPatrick said.

Graham also said the lab supports “a whole gamut of different things,” including English, language, classics and art courses. He added that while the technology may seem intimidating to a beginner, there’s a whole staff willing to help.

“It’s really just about what vision people bring to bear with the resources that we have available here,” Graham said.

Graham said the Open Lab can support all majors — even the ones you would never think needed it.

“So, for instance, we have language courses that come in, and they use Google Earth VR to travel to places like Russia,” Graham said. “And then they’re, like, you know, walking around Moscow, using their vocabulary skills to describe the things they’re seeing in these group settings is really cool.”

Graham also said that although much of the work done in the lab is academic, it is not the sole focus of the space.

“We do it for not just course related projects, but for personal projects as well,” Graham said. “We believe that teaching happens inside and outside of the classroom. We have people who come in and use virtual reality for class projects, but we have people who come in to use it for fun as well.”

One of the people who has used the space for a personal project is Dan Kaple, digital creation specialist for the University Library System who oversees the Digital Stewardship Lab, a space devoted to digitization, 3D-scanning and hand-on learning. He is currently scanning family photos in this lab as a keepsake.

“I have boxes of old negatives and boxes of old family photographs, and I’ve just been slowly going through the process of scanning all of those and then putting them onto multiple hard drives and distributing them to all my family members,” he said.

FitzPatrick said the maker spaces are a great opportunity for students to learn without financial or technical barriers.

“I think having maker spaces like the Open Lab where students and faculty and staff can go and just try things and learn things and don’t have to worry about economic barriers, or technical skill set barriers, indicate one of the more positive values about us as an educational institution and as a community,” she said.

This article has been updated to better reflect Dan Kaple’s project. His job title was also corrected. The Pitt News regrets this error.