Tech You Can Take
NEW YORK, October 16, 2017

Flexible seating. 3D printing. Virtual reality. High-end computing. For many students, faculty, and researchers, these are benefits - even expectations - of a modern research library. At Columbia, the Science & Engineering Library checks all of these boxes. But often, these assets are tied to a physical library space. Now, the Libraries provides a collection of equipment through a newly-launched tech lending program designed to facilitate take-home opportunities for experimentation and research.

Raspberry Pi Raspberry Pis, microcomputers that are useful for learning basic programming, are one of several devices now available to faculty, students, and staff through the Libraries' new tech lending program. (Photo by Jennifer Brown.)

Initiated by Emerging Technologies Coordinator Jennifer Brown and Operations & Undergraduate Coordinator Jim Crocamo in 2016, the tech lending program is currently offered by the Science & Engineering Library in the Northwest Corner Building. The roster of technology in circulation includes: Raspberry Pis, microcomputers the shape of a credit card, Arduinos, miniature controllers that are especially adept with sensors, and Leap Motion controllers, hardware sensors that allow users to control computer programs with in-air finger and hand gestures, all of which are searchable through the Libraries’ online catalog. The compactness and durability of each device enables the Libraries to lend items in the same way a user would borrow a book, allowing amateur “makers” to experiment with circuitry and code from their own homes.  

Now that the equipment is more readily available to students, faculty are also catching on to the possibilities of integrating the devices into their classrooms. Brown recently collaborated with Jason Wong, a Ph.D. candidate and an instructor of a course on sustainable development at Columbia who thought an Arduino would be especially useful to his students for a creative assignment on the Singapore haze crisis. Wong encouraged students to attend an optional workshop led by Brown, “Arduino for Sustainable Development,” which taught participants how to use the device to detect dust and other particles and calculate temperature, among other relevant tasks.

Elsie Platzer, CC ’20, attended Brown’s session and, along with a classmate, borrowed an Arduino through the tech lending program to complete the assignment, which asked students to pose hypothetical solutions to the haze emergency. Platzer and her partner ultimately designed a successful curriculum for 5th through 7th graders that introduced students to the crisis and framed the Arduino as a useful tool for addressing the issue.

“Not only did [the tech lending program] broaden our horizons, letting us learn a little more about circuitry and computing by playing with an Arduino, but it also saved us from purchasing the tech for our project, which ended up a smashing success,” said Platzer. “I would definitely rent again if the circumstance arose.”

Wong, Platzer’s instructor, echoed her praise of the tech lending program as “a good opportunity to engage students in using new technology” and encourage more creative approaches to problem-solving.

“I think this experience...engaged the entrepreneurial and innovative types of students who want to do something hands-on,” Wong said. “I saw that many of the students became much more engaged in the field of sustainable development. This kind of motivation and inspiration is exactly what we are looking for in students.”

Brown agreed that Platzer and her partner’s work was an ideal example of the way in which the tech lending program is intended to benefit coursework and catalyze discovery for students and researchers alike.

“Our intention was to put interesting tech that users would also find applicable to their classes or research into circulation,” said Brown. “The equipment that we offer is multifunctional and as useful for meaningful work as it is fun to play around with.”

The program itself originated in the spirit of creativity and experimentation among Libraries staff. During the fall of 2015, Brown and fellow staffers in the Science & Engineering Library held an internal collaborative project series to learn about a recently-acquired set of Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, hoping not only to understand the technology, but also to brainstorm ways to incorporate the equipment into their teaching and workshops. The group ultimately built a robotic car with an Arduino, created a time-lapse video with a Raspberry Pi, and decided that the tech was too cool not to share.

“The project was a way for our staff to collaborate and learn more about what’s in our space, but it also gave us the idea to open this new tech to faculty and students,” said Brown. “I could see how this equipment could tie into courses in computer science, engineering, and even digital humanities. The tech lending program was a way to make it known that the Libraries has equipment that anyone can use in their own way.”

Brown also recognized that there was no source for instruction on how to actually use an Arduino, a Raspberry Pi, or other technologies at Columbia, aside from introductory videos and project books. Staff members, including Brown, soon mobilized to host demonstrations and workshops that emphasized collaboration and connection, rather than solitary learning.

“It was necessary that the Libraries provide workshops to facilitate collaborative community-building,” said Brown. “Offering workshops allowed me to not only introduce these technologies, but to provide avenues for students across disciplines to connect over similar areas of interest. Libraries seem like a natural place for this sort of collaboration between students.”

Admittedly, the program has had a slow start as few courses actually require use of the equipment. However, as the Libraries acquire more technology, like a 3D printing pen and an Oculus Rift, the possibilities for course integration become greater and greater.

“We’re especially excited about the ways that the tech lending program connects scholars and students with our librarians to engage with technology for their own research or just to learn more about what’s possible,” said the Libraries’ Director of Digital Scholarship, Mark Newton, whose group oversees the lending program. “We can help the self-starters tinker, but we’re available for in-depth consultations around technology-supported research and scholarship, too. In many ways, it feels like we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible in digital scholarship, and programs like tech lending are helping us understand exactly where the Columbia community hopes we can grow.”

For more information about the Libraries’ tech lending program, please contact Jennifer Brown at jcb2257@columbia.edu.

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10/16/17 CUL