School of Information Sciences

Collaboration with Maker Space in TechShop Challenge Creates Exciting Possibilities for School of Information Sciences Students


The School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh (iSchool) recently collaborated with the TechShop of Pittsburgh to host a unique student game design competition. The TechShop offers a large physical space, equipment and computer software, and full training on all resources to members. Its goal is to support and bring together a strong maker community.

The competition, known as the TechShop Challenge, evolved from an earlier design challenge called Books and Bots. The Books and Bots Challenge was created by iSchool associate professor Leanne Bowler, and was envisioned as a fun way to push students to invent and create something from concept to product. Teams of no more than three students can submit detailed proposals for either an original board game concept or a twist on an existing game that significantly modifies the original. Concepts require a backstory, robotic or physical computing elements, and fabricated pieces made at the TechShop. The challenge incorporates elements of storytelling, computing, robotics, and physical manufacturing of components.

Dmitriy Babichenko, a lecturer  at the iSchool and co-organizer of the challenge, has been a member at the TechShop for a while, utilizing its resources for personal projects and expanding on his own interests. Through his own enjoyment of the TechShop, he saw a great opportunity to get iSchool students involved in the maker space movement where they could acquire hands-on experience working with cutting-edge technologies.

Babichenko, along with Wes Lipschultz, Manager of Student Services at the iSchool, and i3 Project Director Mike Depew, pitched the challenge concept to the TechShop. Les Gies, Senior Accounts Manager at the TechShop, supported the idea and offered the facility’s resources free of charge to the competing teams, as well as funding.

Of the six bids submitted for the TechShop Challenge, only three teams were selected to receive funding to fully create their proposed projects. One team dropped out, leaving two teams competing for the prize of $450 credit at the University Book store for each member of the winning team.

"When initial requests for proposals came up, I didn't realize what a challenge it was going to be to coach the teams on scope. This is a challenge in higher education in general,” said Lipschultz, who organized the logistics and judging metrics for the challenge.

“To go from theory to practice in a pragmatic way, you have to think in terms of scope – how ideas translate to reality,” he added. “This is an important way of thinking that we need to expose students to and do more of."

The final teams had three and a half months to fully execute their proposed concepts, taking care to meet all required criteria. They had free access to the resources, tools, and classes offered at the TechShop to supplement their existing knowledge in order to complete their projects.

One team developed an original concept called Mouse-catraz. The idea behind the game is that players move around the board as lab rats collecting materials needed to escape the lab, such as rubber bands, paperclips, cheese, and so on. The board is equipped with an Arduino-controlled lab assistant in the form of a cat who circles the board and traps players. The object is to collect all the required materials for escape before the lab assistant cat traps your mouse.

The second team worked on an enhanced version of the game Jumanji, which is inspired by the film and original children’s book by Chris Van Allsburg. Team Jumanji felt that the existing board game “misses the real adventure of the movie,” as they wrote in a blog update during the challenge. They modified the game to include timed trivia elements and automated movements of game pawns to more closely mimic the magical board game featured in the film and book.

Trivia questions appeared on an LCD screen positioned in the center of the board, and players had to correctly answer the questions before time ran out. In order to mimic the magical movements of the game, Team Jumanji utilized a photoresistor, LEDs, and a color-coded die that communicated the number of spaces a pawn should move for each correctly answered trivia question.

Both teams had fully developed backstories to their games and used robotics, 3D printers, and laser-cutters to create their physical and functional board games.

The completed games were presented in February at iFest and judged by a panel who took into account the criteria requested of each project, as well as functionality of the game, overall presentation, and how appealing the game was to actually play. In the end, the challenge was declared a tie, and members from both teams were awarded credit at the University Book Store.

“Students came up with very creative solutions to solve problems in the development of their projects,” commented Babichenko. “Simple, brilliant solutions to complicated problems emerged.”

An important takeaway from the TechShop Challenge was that there is a great need for physical space to create and expand upon the concepts and theories being developed by students at the iSchool. The challenge demonstrated what people could achieve and learn when given the space to explore and carry their ideas through to completion.

Creating this kind of maker space onsite at the iSchool is an important goal for Babichenko, who is working to write donation request letters for a 3D printer to get the space off the ground. He is also developing a crowd funding campaign to help raise funds for additional resources in order to make the dream of building the iSchool’s own maker space a reality.

"There is a clear need for a maker space,” said Babichenko. “Information science is not just about programming or business analysis. Information science can go into very unexpected places.” The iSchool plans to continue collaborations with the TechShop and other local maker spaces in the future in order to allow students to fully experience the maker community. 

“We are a society driven by information, and we need to foster a movement around the topic of information science,” added Lipschultz. In the future the TechShop Challenge could be moved away from iFest and expanded on to go beyond just game design.

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