I would encourage visitors to the SSU Makerspace to strike up a conversation with our student assistants. Without exception, they are friendly, engaging, funny, patient, and our local experts on how to use the machines in the makerspace. They are rock-stars. Since the day our facility opened, Lucero Alvarez Vieyra has been assisting community makers with their academic and independent projects.
Here are highlights from our conversation about her experience, aspirations, thoughts about equity issues in the STEM fields, and practical advice for teachers and students planning trips to the makerspace: (This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.)
Introduction to Lucero Alvarez Vieyra
Joel: Hi Lucero, what is your major and how did you get hired to work in the makerspace?
Lucero: I am a Biochemistry major and I just added a math minor. I got involved with the makerspace because the year prior I was a peer mentor for the Chemistry Department. Dr. Quall’s called me right after they opened the SSU Makerspace and said, “You’re going to hear about this, will be learning about this and we are looking to hire you, would you like to work here?” And I told him, I don’t have a lot of experience, but sure! And that’s how I got into it.
Academic use of the Makerspace
Joel: As a biochemistry major, what do you see as the biggest opportunity for how Sonoma State could be using its makerspace?
Lucero:I feel like it is pretty useful already. Electrical engineering majors come in and do their projects in here. Physics majors come in too and work on their final projects as well as doing prototypes. They can go into Darwin where there is a lab or come over here.
A lot of classes are starting to use VR - we are actually getting really booked with classes. I think VR itself has a lot of potential for STEM education - like the work of Dr. Christopher Tassone from Stanford who is making labs for chemistry majors. It is very difficult, especially for organic chemistry to see all of the mechanisms three-dimensionally. Usually, it’s literally on a whiteboard: this wedge means its facing out at you, this wedge means that it is facing this way. And then you have to try to visualize that molecule. This is all two-dimensional, written on the whiteboard! I remember talking to him (Dr. Tassone) and he said that he is already developing a program for organic chemistry.
Joel: I’ve always viewed VR as an extension and evolution of our digital lives, rather than a tool for understanding the physical world. For example, I’ve imagined that learning to develop programs in Unity would put students in a great position to get hired in the video gaming industry.
Lucero: I see the standpoint you are coming from - there can be a disconnection betweens doing things in a virtual technological world verses in real life. It’s such a different experience. Dr. Tassone was talking about performing surgeries in VR, but surgeries require such fine motor skills that you have to build physically. I think what they are trying to do is to get medical students into feeling comfortable with the routine. I’ve seen surgeries before and it's like “pass me this”, it’s a big routine that they have to go through and I think VR can give you the exposure and the practice of it. I think Virtual Reality labs are a really important way to be able to apply things you learned in class settings.
Joel: I can see with organic chemistry that you need to do more than memorize formulas, you need to visualize the molecules to understand why the bonds are working the way they are.
Lucero: I feel especially in the STEM fields it would be really helpful for students to see that. Once you see it, when you build molecules, and then you see it physically, it just clicks. It makes everything so much easier.
Professional connections and aspirations
Joel: Do you think the things you are doing here and working on in the makerspace are going to influence jobs you might pursue in the future?
Lucero: I’m honestly not too sure. It’s very different from my field. In the makerspace, there are a lot more physical things I am touching with my hand versus working with liquids and chemicals. Here, it won’t explode in my face - well I guess it could, but it is very different.
Joel: What career do you want to pursue after you graduate?
Lucero: I want to do orthopedic surgery - where people do use saws and drills. I work in the summer with my dad in construction, so I already am familiar with that type of equipment. I think that’s been really helpful. Especially if I have to put in different screws and stuff - just being comfortable working with my hands. Maybe in the future, I will be using different kinds of machines for performing surgery, I think me being comfortable with this machinery (in the SSU makerspace) might help me out there. And software-wise too.
Joel: Are you planning on going to medical school?
Lucero: Yes. I want to apply to the Mayo Clinic. It’s all the way over in the East Bay, but it’s one of the top schools for orthopedic surgery. It’s just a plan.
Joel: How did you decide that you wanted to do that? Do you come from a family with an interest in science?
Lucero: No, not at all. I don’t come from a science family at all. My parents didn’t finish elementary school. One of my siblings dropped out of high school. Two of my siblings graduated from continuation school. I’m the only one that graduated from high school and went to college. This is very new for my family. I have been figuring it out on my own - with a lot of help too from friends and mentors. In high school, I was actually in a pre-med corps. In my junior and senior years, they exposed us out to the medical field and also to the police academy. So it was a two-way segway: law enforcement and pre-med. We shadowed at a bunch of hospitals; we went with the nurses. I did forty hours of community service at Memorial Hospital. The summer, after I graduated from high school, I did an internship at Kaiser Permanente. So I worked there all summer and they had me switching around departments, which is how I got to see surgeries. And that solidified my interest a little more.
Attracting and retaining underrepresented people in STEM
Joel: One of the goals of the Makerspaces was to try to help the sciences attract and retain women and underrepresented students in the STEM fields. Do you see any connection between that and the makerspace? What do you think are the things that really keep people interested in STEM? It sounds like for you going into the workplace and seeing people really doing things sparked your interest.
Lucero: I think honestly and personally — here at Sonoma State, our major is predominately white, so especially for women, as you go higher in the STEM fields, you see less diversity — I think just being here and being a part of it makes it comfortable. When I was a peer mentor in the Chemistry Department I had a girl, a Latina girl, come up to me. And she told me, I am so happy that you are my peer mentor, it makes me feel a lot more comfortable. She was like - hey, there’s more women, Latinas, more diversity, someone of color that’s in this major and trying for something, so it gives me hope. I think it’s just having figures, seeing people still trying in this, and them being more comfortable. I do notice (in the makerspace) that more females come up to me versus other workers because they are more comfortable doing that. That’s what I think from what I’ve seen.
I am just going for it. It is really hard to know [what keeps students in STEM fields]. Every individual is different and going through different things in their lives. I think it takes just one person reaching out. And putting in a little extra time.
There are lots of different factors. Sadly, a lot of minorities come from lower incomes, so it’s like job-after-job and having to work through school. STEM majors are really difficult. And especially the cultural factor of families not understanding that you’re in school, you have to study. My parents didn’t understand me studying. They didn’t believe me that I was in the library studying. “You’re probably out drinking or something.” I was like no I’m in the library studying. So the first time I stayed until midnight, my parents came here to the library to see if I was there and pick me up. So it’s just a big cultural thing too.
Joel: Different barriers and expectations. Those cultural issue are complicated.
Lucero: When I have my mind on something, I am just going to go for it.
Favorite moments in the Makerspace
Joel: Have seen any projects in the makerspace, where you were like, “that’s awesome!”?
Lucero: When John [a former student assistant] made the little banjo. He 3D printed a banjo and then played it. I thought that was really interesting.
Ooo! During the Tinker Academy with the middle school girls. We were helping one of the girls on the laser cutter. It was a lantern that looked like the outline of a tree. We had to go in there and help her cut-out each little stencil of tree branches. It was about 8 inches and the trees were four inches. We had to punch it out without breaking it. It was only on 1/8th inch thick wood and so that was really difficult. Just the satisfaction of helping the girl and seeing how happy she was with her final product.
Joel: So you like some of the teaching aspects of working in the makerspace…
Lucero: Yeah, so that’s another conflict I have. I am really into the whole educational aspect of it. I’ve always found myself going back towards it - helping, resources, education. I think maybe further down the road, once I am done, I might use my interest in education. Knowing myself, I will.
Advice for teachers and students using the Makerspace
Joel: Do you have any advice for teachers who are planning developing a project for using the makerspace?
Lucero: The teachers could come in with a plan of what they want to do - specifically - and give the student assistants a heads-up so that we can prep for it. Take, for example, the last class that came in. They had 24-25 students coming in for three different sections. The assignment was to go into the makerspace and learn everything you can about a particular machine. They needed to present it as if they were going to show us how to use it. And students only had like 30 minutes in the makerspace. And there were only two techs here. We were literally just jumping around everywhere. It would be nice if teachers could give us a heads-up, so that we can help them.
I actually have had some professors come in and ask, “Hey I’d kind of like to do this, what do you recommend doing?” So even coming in and talking with one of us and brainstorming is a good idea, because we have seen a lot of workshops before. We have been through a lot of different activities. So if they give us a little bit of a plan of what they will be doing, we can make other suggestions that would work better for them.
Joel: What should teachers know about working with students in the makerspace?
Lucero: If they are going to be coming on consecutive days and if they want to focus on the machinery, maybe just focus on two or three and not have students spread out on everything, so that there is enough time and people, staff-wise, to be able to really help them and walk through it easily. And then, if they are brainstorming something. If you are working on the laser cutter, grab a laptop, work on Adobe Illustrator if you’re not familiar with it. We can sit down and help you or maybe look up videos, And while some people are working on it, others can be making their design. Or maybe go off on something they are familiar with and do something else.
Or they might want to make something useful for their class. I have had economics professors come in and make some kind of ruler for their class. Maybe the project could be something they could incorporate into their class and be like, “Hey you are going to need this for a class, go into the makerspace as an assignment and then you can use what you make in our class throughout the semester.”
Joel: What tools are easiest to use with students?
Lucero: 3D printers would probably be the one, but only because of Thingiverse. All the models are pre-made, so they are just learning how to load and unload the filament. The harder aspect of that is the design part, which probably will take a bit more time. But there is Tinkercad, and it is pretty simple. You just have to sit down and learn it. In SCI-220, we have always gone with TinkerCad, because we are not sure what student's background will be with design software.
Joel: Anything else that you think people should know about the SSU Makerspace?
Lucero: I guess just to not be afraid to come in and try something. Especially for non-STEM majors, I see a lot of people just kind of peer in and walk away. I think they are more just afraid to walk in. I think we need to help people with getting over that, to figure out ways to grab people’s attention, and get them in here because the whole point of space is to get people wanting to do something. Get out of their comfort zone and learn about this. We are starting to get more art majors which is really nice.
I think another thing that we lack here is just not having connections [with other labs and studios on campus]. What are the requirements to go into the art building and have access to that? I honestly didn’t know we had that until last semester. I didn’t know we had ceramics or welding - a lot of people don’t know that. It would be nice if we had some kind of connection and figured something out. I feel like they are a makerspace but it’s just not titled that. I think it would be nice if both sides could contribute to one another. I understand that with bigger machinery, you need some type of person who is constantly with you and it's a lot bigger of a hazard too - just letting anyone weld - so that’s understandable. But maybe you could do some kind of workshop or tutorial or something, so that people can go in and have that opportunity, and have it open to non-art majors,
One of the nice things about the Makerspace is that it is open to everybody. Spreading the word and making connections - that’s something we need to work on.