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Frith First-year Makerspace.
Photo by Peter Means.

Frith turns 25

The Frith First-Year Makerspace is celebrating its 25th year at the university in a brand-new space on campus.

For 25 years, the Frith First-Year Makerspace has transformed first-year education for general engineering students, many who are exploring engineering for the first time. This year, the lab went through a different kind of transformation – into a brand-new space!

Transforming first-year education

The Frith First-Year Makerspace was established in 1998 by a philanthropic gift from Ray Frith ’51 and Violet Frith to renovate what used to be the “Car Factory,” used by the Formula and Baja teams, and make it a space that could provide first-year students with hands-on experience. The couple continued to provide financial support for operations and even an extensive renovation, adding modern equipment, in 2014.

Ray Frith hold a photo of his wife while he is sitting in a wheelchair surrounded by five other people.
From left to right: Virginia Tech President Tim Sands, Julie Ross, the Paul and Dorothea Torgersen Dean of Engineering, Lance Frith, Ray Frith (holding a photo of wife, Violet Frith), Alexandra Anderson, Marie Frith Anderson, in Burruss Hall in June 2023. Photo by Travis Carr for Virginia Tech.

Twenty-five years later, the lab continues to serve as an integral part of the first-year engineering experience and enables general engineering students to learn by dissecting, designing, making, and analyzing engineering products.

The lab features over $150,000 worth of equipment available for any general engineering student to use once they have completed the required safety training. While the tools can be used for projects assigned in engineering classes, students are encouraged to come and use the lab for the sake of learning. The lab offers a variety of equipment, including 3D printers, laser cutters, metalworking, wood shop, and crafting.

Today, the lab is run by director Ben Chambers, lab manager Nick Bedard ’21, and more than 30 undergraduate lab assistants (ULAs) – engineering students from all years and disciplines across the College of Engineering.

Ben Chambers
Ben Chambers (left). Photo by Peter Means.
Nick Bednard
Nick Bedard (right). Photo by Peter Means.

Years before he was an employee, Bedard was introduced to the lab as a mechanical engineering student. 

“I started working here in the second semester of my freshman year, and quickly began spending all my free time here,” he said. One of the first projects he worked on was a laser-engraved sign for his mom that featured a rebar heart and the coordinates of her back porch. “I made the backer frame in Frith's woodshop, and laser engraved the porch coordinates on the leather. The project took me a couple of hours and was a 'blow off steam' project after a long week of class.”

Wood plaque with a rebar heart and GPS coordinates.
The laser-engraved sign that Nick made for his mom. Photo courtesy of Nick Bedard.

For Bedard, the ability to knock out engineering projects brought him to the lab, but it was the sense of community that kept him there. 

“I learned a lot from the upperclassmen in the space,” he said. “When I first joined Frith I was quite a bit quieter; some of the more senior ULAs really demonstrated this extroversion as a tool in the lab and encouraged the first-years to better their projects and be excited about making. This really turned into a blueprint for me and what I strive to do even now, seven years later.”

Bedard became a lab assistant soon after, working in the lab through his junior year. “I gravitated towards the lab mainly out of a desire to retain my access to a workshop on campus, but retaining access was quickly overshadowed by a deep enjoyment of helping students work on their projects and developing better practices to thoroughly teach students," he said. “A ULA named Richard, who I am still good friends with to this day, really set the bar for becoming an expert with respect to equipment in the lab and effectively training the students. I wouldn't have half the knowledge I do without his guidance and encouragement.”

Now, as lab manager, his days include equipment maintenance and programming, but most importantly, making sure everyone is happy and has a good time – and leaves with the same amount of fingers they came into the lab with. 

“Since this is a learning environment and students are getting to work with equipment that’s new to them, we spend extensive time developing and redeveloping robust training sequences to convey the most important operation of equipment,” said Bedard. “While the measures we take are great, our ULAs that help supervise the space are really the frontlines of making sure folks aren't putting themselves in harm's way.”

Making the move

Over the summer, while students were preparing to return to class, Bedard was preparing equipment for the move from Randolph Hall to New Classroom Building, which will be the lab’s temporary home until the new Mitchell Hall is built. 

The team said goodbye to the checkered floors and said hello to something the old space didn’t have: windows!

Frith First-year Makerspace.
Frith First-year Makerspace.
Students working on a project.
The new Frith First-Year Makerspace. Photos by Peter Means.
Students working at a screen.
Students working on a project.

The new Frith First-Year Makerspace opened to students just in time for the fall 2023 semester, and Bedard and the team are already seeing the benefits of their new location. Not only do the new windows allow students to see the outdoors as they work on their projects, but internal windows into the building allow more students to see into the lab as they walk to class. 

“We’ve seen much more student involvement and curiosity about the lab since moving to this building,” said Bedard. “Registrations for lab trainings have also increased!” 

In October, the lab hosted its first student build event in the new space – just in time for Halloween. The students each chose a plastic pumpkin or skeleton and were tasked with making it “come to life” with help from an Arduino, an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software. The students were each given a kit, complete with a switch and motion sensor, that allowed them to record a message. When activated by motion, the Halloween decor would light up and sound would play from the speaker.

During the event, ULAs, identified by their pink hats, roamed the lab, ready to provide support and encouragement when needed. The opportunity allowed new students to learn from upperclassmen in various majors, while the ULAs honed their teaching skills. 

“These student build events are a great way to welcome new students to the engineering community at Virginia Tech,” said Chambers, collegiate assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Education and director of the Frith First-Year Makers program. “We want them to explore all the possibilities that are available to them and get a little experience doing hands-on engineering, where they produce a product that they can take home with them.” 

By the end of the evening, students had created a project that would add Halloween spirit to their residence halls and serve as a visual reminder of their engineering ability.


The future of Frith

This is only the beginning for the future for the Frith First-Year Makerspace. The space will move into its permanent home in the new Mitchell Hall, which will begin construction in spring 2024 with the initial demolition of Randolph Hall.

“We're going to continue to grow as we prepare for and move into Mitchell Hall,” said Chambers. “I see our reach, connections, and partnerships growing in strength and scope both within and beyond the university. We'll continue to be a place where students find and share inspiration, make cool things, and develop their technical skills.”


Editor's note: On Oct. 16, Ray Frith ’51, whose philanthropic gift established the Frith Lab in 1998, died at the age of 93. He and his wife Violet's generosity helped usher in a new era of experiential learning in the College of Engineering. As the Frith First-Year Makerspace commemorates its 25th anniversary, we pay tribute to the Friths for their immeasurable impact on generations of Hokie engineers past, present, and future.


Video by Lee Friesland

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