MU hackerspace evolves into campus club

Sunday, October 17, 2010 | 2:06 p.m. CDT; updated 3:19 p.m. CDT, Sunday, October 17, 2010

COLUMBIA — Ben Schulz walked down Ninth Street carrying what looked like a plastic spider. Wires jutted out of the elongated rectangle, mimicking little arachnid legs.

“This is progress,” Schulz said, lifting the object. “We’ve been doing something.”

The elongated rectangle has nothing to do with spiders; it is a small computer known as a micro-controller soldered to a network of light bulbs. This is one of many projects designed in MU’s fledgling hackerspace, a campus club that promotes technological inquiry, research and exchange of intellectual capital.

Schulz, a second-year master’s student in computer science, is running the club with Ian Graves, a computer science Ph.D. candidate. Bill Harrison, a computer science professor at MU, serves as the club’s faculty adviser.

While the group uses many of the research facilities already on campus, its research pursuits will differ from more conventional campus-based research. Schulz explained that campus-based research generally involves competition for resources, while a hackerspace is a commons where resources are pooled and provided to a broad range of participants who can pursue their curiosities.

The hackerspace recently gained the status of an official campus club. This gives the group a “banner to operate under,” Graves said.

“It’s nice that we have official club status,” Schulz said. “We are recognized by the campus, and we can reserve rooms to work in.”

Since the group’s inception, attendance numbers at the meetings have steadily increased.

“We will see anywhere from 10 to 20 people in the club,” Graves said. “Since we kind of do what we want, people show up when they’re interested in working on a specific project.”

The club, which meets at 4:30 p.m. Wednesdays on the third floor of Engineering Building North, has made efforts to diversify its projects to incorporate students from disciplines outside of computer science.

This involves a bit of a balancing act. The hackerspace has been able to draw information technology students by conducting projects pertaining to Web design.

“We’re trying to integrate hardware and Web stuff,” Schulz said. “We want people from all aspects.”

The hardware projects focus mostly on working with microcontrollers, which are inexpensive, single-chip computers, Schulz said. He added that the group’s Web-based projects deal with various forms of Web design coding programs.

Schulz and Graves hope to extend the group’s sphere of interest further, beyond the academic realm of computer science. But they recognize doing so will take time and what Schulz calls “the right hook.”

“It’s going to take something particularly special,” he said. “It may have to be a project that’s fairly easy and that also has broad appeal.”

The duo hopes that a project like the Drawdio could be that hook. Schulz describes the Drawdio as “a really simple gizmo” that electronically links up to a pencil and uses the conductivity of the graphite to produce musical tones

For the time being, Schulz and Graves are pleased with the growth of the MU hackerspace, which began in late August

“We created the culture of interest where people want to do things,” Schulz said. “We’ve localized with an actual, physical space where people can meet. That’s what’s supposed to happen.”

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