INNOVATIVE PLACES: Iowa State University Computation + Construction Lab

The work of the Iowa State University Computation + Construction Lab can pop up anywhere. An art piece called Bluestem at the Iowa Arboretum in Madrid pays homage to Iowa’s tallgrass prairies; 80 student-designed, 3D-printed clay vases given to Iowa State donors for President Wendy Wintersteen’s inauguration likely sit scattered in offices and living rooms as a thank-you for supporting the university.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the Computation + Construction Lab’s staff and student leaders were in a prime spot to prototype, print and donate parts for 2,000 face shields destined for Iowa hospitals racing to stock up on personal protective equipment for staff members.

While the lab offers students an extensive range of techniques to try, the real challenge of keeping a makers’ space cutting-edge is teaching students how to think critically about the role of design in peoples’ lives, said Shelby Doyle, assistant professor of architecture at Iowa State University.

“We have to be critical of some of the culture that has come along with the ‘move-fast-and-break-things’ ethos of innovation culture, especially in design and software,” Doyle said. “We have an opportunity to rethink them, to figure out how innovation can be a more equitable space that invites more people into a conversation.”

The following is a Q&A with Doyle.

How big is the Computation + Construction Lab?
About 2,500 square feet, and we’re looking at expanding into another studio that would make it about 5,000 square feet. It’s located in a communications building, which is the old Iowa Public Radio building. … We’re on old soundstages, so really nice, column-free high ceilings. There were historic control rooms that had people managing lights and stuff, so that’s the research spaces for faculty research, and [the soundstage] is where students work and do coursework. It made for a relatively easy transformation, and because of all the lights and cameras, it had a really high electric load. So we were able to put equipment in there that needed a lot of electricity, because that can be really expensive to upgrade the electricity and a really invisible way to spend money.

We have a 5×10 CNC [computer numerical control] machine, we have a 2×3 CNC, and we have a plasma CNC to cut steel. … We have a potter bot, which lets us 3D-print clay, which is really exciting. When [ISU President Wendy] Winterstein was inaugurated and installed, the gifts that were given to major donors were these 3D-printed vases that we worked on in collaboration with the ceramics department. That’s one of the nice things about these spaces, is they let really interesting and weird collaborations happen.

Now we have a front space that has 25 3D printers for our students that they can access on their own. … I have a collection of textile tools, looms and knitting machines, photography spaces so they can document their work and put it online in portfolios. We have sewing machines. … In the pre-COVID times, you would see a lot of students making stuff and casting things, trying things out and experimenting.

Because of COVID, we really had to rethink our teaching model to allow students access to as much equipment as possible but to maintain social distancing.

Which departments at Iowa State University tend to occupy these spaces?
It is an architecture facility, but I teach what’s called an option studio, which is a studio that any of the seven departments at the College of Design can take.

They’re taking a class that helps them understand what they can and can’t do with the machinery, provides support and teaching assistants and student workers to help them do their work.

How was this established?
My colleagues and I have been writing about what we thought this could be like, thinking about ways of teaching classes and how technology is distributed. The idea of culture and technology, particularly computation and construction, can be very male-dominated spaces. How do we attempt to make this place that fosters a sense of gender equity and access to a broad range of students?

Things are changing so quickly, and technology is becoming available so quickly — I hadn’t anticipated having a potterbot, for example. … It really took the collaboration with the ceramics department to make that machine really work because they have the knowledge around clay. So what’s been surprising is we’ve partnered with several nonprofits and small towns to do these outreach projects. … People have been interested in what that might look like working with students, and I’ve appreciated the spirit of willingness.

We’ve been focusing on arts organizations because I feel like that’s our most direct corollary. I think it’s important that the students are working with a group that maybe wouldn’t have access to design services or design ideas. … That’s within the outreach and land grant mission of Iowa State, going outward with these technologies so that they don’t just live in the lab — they start in the lab and then they go out into the world.

How do students bring what they learn from CCL out into the working world?
I think a lot of the design skills and project management skills, technical skills translate in a way that the technology we’re using is changing so fast. The idea that you would somehow become an expert in something in 2016, and that would serve you for the next 20 years, that really isn’t possible anymore. It’s more about trying to convey the sense of approaching an unknown, and then being able to chip away at that unknown and sort of grapple with it. A lot of our students go on to work in firms, architecture firms or construction firms, because they already have some of that experience of translating an idea into something that’s built.

The threshold for accessing those technologies is less intimidating, so even if they’re not totally experts in something, they know that they can gain that expertise, which I think is part of the hope of the teaching process. Innovation isn’t something you do once and then you are done. It’s that way of approaching problems.

What are the challenges of keeping a lab like this on the cutting edge of technology?
Part of it is trying to figure out how to teach strategies that bridge changing technologies. Staying up to date is nearly impossible, but I would say that software changes much faster than hardware. What I see changing is different uses of software … things that took forever 10 years ago, now you can do super fast. I’m learning things from the students all the time.

There’s this notion of innovation being new, and [you] have to totally get rid of everything that came before it. I think innovation happens in very small increments. … It’s the idea of taking a known technology and changing it a little bit, or altering it so that the innovation isn’t new robotics. That’s what makes it a more achievable process. There’s the notion that innovation comes out of nowhere. Construction technology has a very long history — people have been building things for a very long time, and we’re at the end of thousands of years of human knowledge.

There’s a quote that’s attributed to William Gibson, who wrote “Neuromancer”: “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” That’s at the heart of my teaching … technology is really cool, but I really think it’s about people at the end of the day, and it matters that there’s a diverse array of people using and authoring technology.