skip to main content
A student working in the Frith Lab
Photo by Peter Means

Embracing the freedom to fail

The Frith First-Year Makerspace provides hands-on exploration of creativity, community, and engineering.

Take two rows of wooden workbenches, thousands of dollars invested in creative technology and tools, and nearly 30 undergraduate lab assistants (ULAs) from across the College of Engineering, and you get the Frith First-Year Makerspace in Randolph Hall, a lab dedicated to the pursuit of engineering education through failure.

“Makerspaces are one of the rare places where failing or messing something up is not only acceptable, but also encouraged in the course of learning,” said Nick Bedard, the lab’s assistant manager. “Students often get in the mindset that every problem in life will be well-defined with constraints and a solution, but rarely does it work out like that. My biggest excitement is getting students comfortable working in gray areas or nebulous regions of problem solving.”

The Frith First-Year Makerspace is open to all first-year students — no previous experience, reservations, or teammates required. Students can design and create — and redesign and recreate — learning to embrace mistakes as part of the design process. Whether laser cutting a custom gameboard or using the CNC machine to create a wooden mountain range, students are encouraged to utilize Frith space for personal and class projects.

Students working in the Frith Lab.
A student making a line art design on a laptop.
Photos by Peter Means
Students working in the Frith Lab.
Hands tying cord while watching a how-to video.
Students working in the Frith Lab.

Established by a philanthropic gift from Ray Frith ’51 and Violet Frith in 1998, who have continued to provide support for operations and even an extensive renovation in 2014, the makerspace provides a creative home to over 2000 general engineering students – many who are exploring engineering for the first time – and directly connects to their foundations of engineering courses. As the new director of the Frith First-Year Makerspace, Ben Chambers has a vision for the lab that builds off the extensive work of his predecessors and its legacy of learning through the freedom to fail, and looks toward a future that transcends Randolph Hall.

“I envision the First-Year Makers program as a community, and that doesn’t mean just the space,” said Chambers, associate professor of practice in engineering education, who took over as director for William Michael Butler in summer 2021. “It’s in the activity and relationships and conversations of our students, our undergraduate lab assistants, and our faculty, both in the lab and the classroom spaces the program maintains and supplies.”

The first step for the “new” Frith? Making the community feel a reality by bringing engineering students together. Chambers and Bedard started with Frith’s first-ever table at Gobblerfest. They followed it up with a pendulum paint night, a jewelry-making session, and even laser-cut paper pop-up cards, all events where students could explore creativity and the makerspace without any pressure.

   Video by Yesenia Flores.

Just as essential to Chambers’s vision are the undergraduate lab assistants that serve the Frith First-Year Makerspace. According to Chambers, the undergraduate lab assistants are a crucial part of running a successful and safe makerspace. They provide mentoring and other informal support to the students who come into the space, and the diversity of their majors creates a mini-major exploration experience for all Frith visitors.

“Our undergraduate lab assistants are the frontline of encouraging outside-the-box thinking,” Bedard said. “We have mechanical engineers whose specialties are electronics, civil engineers who make incredible artwork, and the list goes on. That curiosity creates an infectiously positive atmosphere. I’ve never been part of a team more committed to the mission than the team of ULAs at Frith.”

Pano image of the Frith Lab.
Red stamp of a capital "F" in an hand.
Photos by Annie Hunter
Abstract paint art.
Pop up Virginia Tech themed card.

When robotics and mechatronics major Melida Umana Martinez joined Frith at the beginning of her sophomore year, she was looking for a way to expand her resume while still working in a workshop setting she loved. Now in her third year as an undergraduate lab assistant, Martinez is just as appreciative of the makerspace as she was on her first day there.

“Frith has been the biggest mentor of all – everyone there is like a family,” she said. “We’re all just a bunch of makers trying to expand the love for creating, and I love that. Frith has supported me by providing me with the space to get creative, which is one of the easiest things to lose under the avalanche of coursework that is engineering. Whenever I’m at the lab, I’m able to create. Simple as that.”

Students working in the Frith Lab.
Photo by Peter Means

For Eszter Varga, an international student from Budapest, Hungary, and a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, Frith was her first place to experience a workshop setting. “I’ve never had access to a lab like this my entire life, as back home, it’s not a sort of thing available to us,” said Varga, now in her third year as an undergraduate lab assistant at Frith. “I fell madly in love with workshops, and Frith allowed me to not only share this passion with other students, but also to keep creating myself.”

Martinez, Varga, and their fellow undergraduate lab assistants will be able to carry that family spirit into the Frith program’s new location when construction of the Randolph Hall replacement officially begins in a few years. After nearly seven decades, Randolph is slated to receive a complete makeover. In addition to almost doubling the building square footage and creating a new home for its existing Stability Wind Tunnel, the revised Randolph will include room for an expanded development space for general engineering students.

 “Our hope for the new space is to increase opportunities for our students to make things and to interact with each other,” Chambers said. “I want it to feel like a home where they can go, have fun creating, learn by doing, and collaborate with their peers.”

Interested in hearing more about the Frith Lab and its community of makers from new director Ben Chambers? Join us on December 7 at 7 p.m. for Beyond the Building: First-Year Makers Community and the Frith Lab, a webinar opportunity focused on this topic. 

If you want to have an impact on our students and faculty like those featured in this magazine, go here to support the College of Engineering. For more information, call (540) 231-3628.