repost: Make Better Stuff Lab at IG



originally posted on by IG member Xanthe Matychak

Last night my students from the Make Better Stuff lab at Ithaca College hosted a public laser cutter demo at Ithaca Generator for First Friday. The Make Better Stuff Lab is a course that I wrote for IC freshmen in which they learn about sustainable design principles and then design and manufacture a product that uses those principles.

During the demo I fielded a lot of questions from observers there about the students’ project. Great questions. I thought I’d post them here:

WHAT IS THE ASSIGNMENT? This project started with a walk in the woods. In teams of two or three, students picked out a leaf from their walk, researched that leaf, then created designs inspired by that leaf.

WHAT ARE THE CONSTRAINTS? All good projects have constraints. There are many for this project, some that are plain old sustainable design principles and some specific to a class of 20 manufacturing a product. All the constraints function to help exercise the students’ imaginations–constraints help us push materials, processes, and ideas beyond the obvious.

WHAT ARE SUSTAINABLE DESIGN PRINCIPLES? There are many. But with this class we are working with the following:

  • Celebrate nature
  • Use responsibly-sourced materials
  • Optimize your design for manufacturing
  • Minimize packaging
  • Turn something old into something new

WHY DO WE MAKE THINGS THAT CELEBRATE NATURE? Last year we hosted laser cut design studios at the generator where the general public made designs and cut them on the laser. Most folks would make beautiful geometric designs, but every so often someone wanted to recreate a corporate logo. Most corporate logos are designed by large marketing teams, but we don’t want to unselfconsciously promote corporations at the expense of celebrating nature. I’d rather promote originality. What we make is what we value.

WHAT MATERIALS ARE YOU USING? We are using FSC Ash veneer that we ordered from Certainly Wood in East Aurora, NY. Veneer is super thin slices of wood that come rolled up but can be flattened out, cut to size, and cut on the laser. It’s a beautiful material, it smells great, and the kind we ordered is FSC approved, FSC standing for Forest Stewardship Council, an organization that sets standards for responsible forest management.

HOW DO WE OPTIMIZE FOR MANUFACTURING? The laser cutter can cut very intricate designs, but it can also create a lot of waste material as by-product and it uses a lot of energy. To address these downsides, the students lay out their designs so that there is minimal waste. Some even used the negative space created by their primary designs to make more designs. As for efficient use of time and energy, we don’t etch because etching can be very slow and there are too many students. That said, I’d like to know how much etching can be done for the same amount of energy used to cut at 60 speed/60 power/500 frequency for ten minutes. That would be good to know.

HOW DO WE MINIMIZE PACKAGING? Packaging serves two functions: it protects the product (in shipping and in the store) and it tells the story of product. So the students have had to design packaging that both protects and sells the product, using minimal materials. Many of them have creatively used recycled card stock for packaging.

HOW DO WE TURN SOMETHING OLD INTO SOMETHING NEW? There are at least two approaches to this: 1) take a discarded object and create a design that gives it a new use. Some of my students, for example, are taking old jelly jars and designing votive shades that transform them into candle holders. 2) build into one design a second use. Some students, for example, embedded flower seeds into their packaging so that when it’s composted it will sprout flowers.


So that, in a nutshell, is what we’re trying to do in Make Better Stuff lab. In December we will have a gallery night sale where students will sell their products. To prepare them, we had Emily Cotman from The Science Center and Stephanie Meyer (pictured above) from Museum of the Earth sit down with them and give them feedback on the types of products that sell in their museum shops. Emily and Stephanie were so generous with their time, and their feedback is just what we need to make it through the final stretch of this project.

Keep an eye out for our DIY Gift Sale in December at Ithaca Generator. Happy making!