Reinventing the Student Experience

At a time when higher education is trying to keep pace with the rapidly changing needs of industry, it is increasingly important to provide students with skills that go beyond traditional expectations. Makerspaces—labs designed for students to get hands-on experience creating projects—are becoming a popular way to help students create and provide experience with tools they will use in the world of work.


Photo Courtesy of JMU X-Labs


In the past, the student experience in college consisted primarily of large lecture halls or smaller classrooms where students sat in rows of desks while the instructor imparted the lesson. While this approach covers content material, the content sticks better when students are engaged in it. This is where project-based learning and makerspaces come in. Projects engage students in ways that traditional lectures don’t because when students are working on a project—solving a real-world problem—they have no choice but to immerse themselves in the content.

As the Maker Movement has taken hold over the past decade or so, more and more colleges and universities—as well as K–12 institutions—have created makerspaces to provide a location, materials, and resources to promote this type of active learning for STEM courses. A great example is JMU X-Labs at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA.

JMU X-Labs utilizes an active-learning classroom and makerspace created to bring students from multiple disciplines together to work on hands-on, real-world projects. The university partners with outside organizations to develop the projects and students work in teams using technology to come up with potential solutions. Projects may involve designing autonomous vehicles or drones to perform specific tasks, or using VR technology to practice surgery skills. Courses have titles such as “Augmented/Virtual Reality,” “Blockchain,” “Medical Innovations,” and “Hacking for Diplomacy.” The lab also houses makerspace equipment such as vinyl cutters, 3D printers, and Epson interactive displays for various types of projects. It also hosts “pop-up” classes on topics ranging from laser-cut jewelry to liquid nitrogen ice cream.

In order to create a great makerspace that truly re-invents the student experience from a “sit and get” approach to an engaging, immersive learning experience, it’s important to focus on three key components: outside partners; effective technology; and curriculum that’s designed for collaboration.

Student project in JMU X-Labs

Photo Courtesy of JMU X-Labs


There is no better way to prepare students for the workforce than to allow them opportunities while in college to partner with businesses, governments, or nonprofit organizations. JMU X-Labs enlists outside partners—organizations like the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and Endgame, a cybersecurity firm—to come up with a list of six to eight problems for students to work on. The instructors and the organizations don’t know what the solutions are. The students are divided into multidisciplinary teams and turned loose to work on developing a solution. They conduct interviews and present every week to provide an update on their project. The business partners typically join via video conferencing to watch the presentations and provide feedback. Students can use technology to talk to the partners during the week and then they develop prototypes based on their feedback.

This collaboration with outside partners is incredibly helpful because students get experience interacting with and presenting to potential employers. Some students have gone on to get hired at the companies that they collaborated with at JMU X-Labs.


In a makerspace atmosphere, technology should be transparent. In other words, it should be easy to use and should enhance and facilitate learning without becoming a focal point itself. JMU X-Labs features five interactive laser displays. Students can work in groups on their projects and project their work directly onto a wall and then annotate directly on that image using their fingers.

For example, they can project a map or a graph onto the wall and circle points of interest or certain data points and make notes about what those represent. The lab also has the capability of creating a video wall in which four of the Epson displays project onto a wall to create a single, large, seamless image that runs the entire length of the wall. This is helpful in the VR classes. If a student is trying to show the glitches in a virtual reality program, the student wears the VR headset and projects what they are seeing onto the large video wall so the rest of the class can see it. Then the student goes through the VR program and points out the glitches. The large image makes it easy for the rest of the class to spot the problems. They can then collaborate on how to fix them.

For videoconferencing, JMU X-Labs uses Cisco solutions and the Epson displays. The lab is equipped with cameras in the front and back of the room so if a business partner or an instructor is conferencing in, they can alternate between views of a student who is presenting at the front of the room and the students in the back who might ask questions or weigh in on the presentation. The lab also has a Beam telepresence robot that can move around and interact with people. In some situations, the person who is videoconferencing in takes control of the robot and uses it to virtually move around the room and “talk” to students.

JMU X-Labs

Photo Courtesy of JMU X-Labs


JMU X-Labs goes beyond teaching a student about engineering or coding. It teaches teamwork, collaboration, presentation skills, and how to work with outside industries to solve real-world problems. The lab works because courses are designed to be truly collaborative, which transforms the student experience from one based on memorizing facts and content to getting actual experience in doing the work—including working with a group to figure out a solution.

All students have a role. For example, in some of the courses, students designed drones to do specific jobs such as inoculating a herd of animals in the wild or mapping the route of a stream to identify areas of pollution and erosion. Students work in teams to create the designs and prototypes. Teams could consist of students majoring in everything from engineering and physics to biology and English. They all play a role. One might lead the research while another leads the design process. Another might be in charge of creating a video or paper to document the process. Working together, all students have a role in all parts of the project.

When done right, courses will teach students skills that bring them out of their comfort zone. A student may be great at physics, but not so great at communicating with others. The courses that JMU X-Labs designs require students to conduct research and talk to experts on the phone to get input and advice to solve a problem. Students must figure out how to frame their questions and articulate them to the expert clearly and concisely in a way that makes the expert want to help them. These skills will help students down the road; for example, as they ask their department for funding or apply for a grant, they’ll be able to clearly articulate their need in a persuasive and professional manner.

Creating a high-tech makerspace at a college or university is worth the investment. The institution just needs to make sure it’s done right. If they can bring in outside partners, equip the space with the right technology, and develop truly collaborative courses, it will be an amazing asset to both the institution and its students. It will draw students to enroll and will teach them skills that will both help them get hired and prepare them to take on the future challenges of the world—which is a win for everyone.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management October 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.