“…While I nodded nearly napping
Suddenly there came a tapping
As if someone gently rapping
Rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visitor,” I muttered
Rapping at my chamber door.”
Though slightly faded, this verse, scribbled on a grey wall, peeks out from behind an over-laden coat hanger in a room in the Boston University Math and Computer Science Building. I scan quickly across the crowded room to notice a bookshelf, wall murals, a few white boards, computers –in part and in whole, and jumbles of wires, switches and cables. Scattered haphazardly, are about a dozen college students. A few of them turn towards me and smile.
BUILDS, an acronym for Boston University Information Lab and Design Space, is a hacker space for students from the university to work on individual and group engineering, software and electrical projects. Housed in what was once a leaky furniture storeroom, the lab was inaugurated in February 2010 for the sole purpose of providing students an avenue to work on creative projects outside of the classroom. It is open around the clock to BUILDS members who enter it using a magnetic swipe card, an action that triggers off a personalized greeting on a computer screen hanging on the door. This unique access route is a student project too. The enigmatic door-monitor is one of many salvaged electronics in the room. “We have a tendency to scavenge around,” said Danny, a Computer Science undergraduate freshmanmarked by a thick mop of magenta-dyed hair.
Managed by a group of university students, BUILDS provides a tangible work arena for interested students of any discipline. Members range from math and computer science majors, to artists and even a few high schoolers from the Boston University Academy. The process to become a member is a simple registration on the BUILDS website which immediately adds newcomers to a mailing list. Kyle Broglek, an undergraduate Computer Science major and President of BUILDS said that most students from other courses do not have access to engineering laboratories, and even those who do, cannot work in them after hours. Personal spaces, like bedrooms and basements, do not always provide needed tools and a safe environment for invention. BUILDS addresses both those concerns and offers mentoring and assistance through interdisciplinary communal learning.
BUILDS was founded by David House, an engineering major who graduated in 2010. A ‘Scarlet Key’ and ‘Phi Beta Kappa Centenial’ awardee, House worked hard to improve student life on campus. “He’s not here now but BUILDS still keeps going. He showed undergraduate students that one person can change the world as he changed the environment at BU,” says Leonid Reyzin, Academic Advisor for BUILDS. Professor Reyzin describes BUILDS as an important self-directed, non-graded component of school where students are motivated to develop their skills because they choose to do so, and not because they need to earn a grade.
Along a longer wall inside BUILDS, lies yet another rack. It’s stocked with electric saws, drills and a host of other power tools. A rugged three-step wooden stairway, with electric wires crisscrossing its veneer, sits close to these tools. The stairway is part of a larger project to build musical stairs at the George Sherman Student Union, similar to the instrumental staircase at the Boston Science Museum. Valerie Young, a purple-haired Physics Undergrad says that the stairs will be programmed to produce different musical notes, which will be triggered off by footfall on each step. ‘Rusty’, a junior majoring in Mechanical Engineering , is BUILDS’own in-house carpenter. When questioned about the need to be part of BUILDS he explains that the college curriculum is not designed for hands-on modelling but leans more toward mathematics. According to him, students are not given the opportunity to do any design work until their senior-level projects. “I’d rather learn than just get a degree. BUILDS is a good place to say screw you. I’ll do what I want!” he says. Professor Reyzin helps put Rusty’s opinion in context, “Here students learn things outside of their immediate interests which universities are not equipped to do because of fixed course and semester structures.”
In a far corner of the workshop a huge pile of circuit boards hides yet another BUILDS member, whose colleagues describe as a “hardware genius”. Wishing to stay anonymous, he talks about his passion while tinkering away with wires and mother boards to. “It’s my recycling hobby. None of this is garbage,” he says, pointing to what appears to be a mountain of e-waste. Admitting to having built several dozen computers in the past, he expresses gratitude to BUILDS for providing him the tools and resources to do so.
Techno music directed through camouflaged speakers engulfs the room. In tracing its source I chance upon yet another ingenious project. A group of BUILDS members worked out a programme that sends mp3 files to a computer in much the same way as print commands are sent to a printer. This allows remote, wireless control over the music, and also gave every young member a chance to listen to his or her preferred song.
Out of the many murals painted on the walls of the room, my eyes linger on one that looks like the circuit room of a mid twentieth century telephone exchange. It cleverly incorporates the actual electrical outlets on the wall within it, which gives the art work a provocative three-dimensional feel. Spanning an entire wall, the mural borders on the fantastical with its painting of a large space balloon framed within a window. The air here was electric, literally and otherwise.
As I leave the room, I glance once again at the Edgar Allen Poe-verse scribbled on the wall, and was glad to have visited BUILDs.
Kyle Broglek- President
Valerie Young- Treasurer
Other BUILDS members: Rusty, Zalika Corbett, Shidash Mcgrath, Darian Springer, Liam Wang, Kit, Danny, Math graduate major who did not want to be named, Mikhail Andreev
Leonid Reyzin- Academic Advisor BUILDS and Associate Professor, Computer Science, BU