EtherNest provides roost for DIY set
By Patrick Kurp
Special to Rice News
“It used to be that electrical engineers built their own sound systems. They were fundamentally hobbyists, and they found like-minded people to share ideas with. That’s what we’re trying to do here — encourage that DIY (do-it-yourself) culture.”
So said Rice student Reed Jones, a McMurtry College senior in electrical and computer engineering (ECE) and the catalyst behind EtherNest, a room in Abercrombie Lab dedicated, in Jones’ words, to “using engineering skills in a nonacademic, self-motivated setting.”
Room A119, formerly the office of a professor who moved into Brockman Hall, was rededicated as the EtherNest in January. The name plays on “Ethernet,” the family of computer networking technologies used in local networks, and “nest,” implying a safe place to spawn ideas.
“We wanted to suggest a creative technical space and also the idea of collaboration, a place where people feel unintimidated and free to work together,” said Jones, the founding president of EtherNest.
The décor is retro geek modern — laptops, a turntable, 3-D printers, a Dr. Who poster, soldering guns and a Devo album cover pinned to the wall. On a shelf are stacked back issues of Make magazine.
Lin Zhong, an associate professor of ECE and of computer science (CS), championed the EtherNest among the ECE faculty.
“I was reading the biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and he was describing how Jobs and Steve Wozniak met in high school and learned from the electronics hobbyists community in their neighborhood,” Zhong said. “That struck a chord in me. When you get like-minded folks to mingle and you challenge them, great things can happen.”
With the approval of Behnaam Aazhang, the J.S. Abercrombie Professor and chair of ECE, the department donated $5,000 to EtherNest for furniture and equipment. The university’s Student Activities President’s Programming also supplied funding, and Texas Instruments provided electronic equipment.
“There’s a need for such an environment at Rice, especially for students who are interested in building things with computers and electronics,” Zhong said. “I knew there was a CS club for programming, but programming is only part of ‘building things.’”
EtherNest has already hosted three workshops — one on 3-D printing, another on electroluminescent wire and a third on TV-B-Gone, a device that serves as a universal television remote control. Two classes are also being held in the room. One student-taught course is devoted to the “maker” movement, a technology-based extension of DIY culture. The other, taught by Ashutosh Sabharwal, professor of ECE, focuses on developing a mobile app that translates spoken words into print for hearing-impaired students.
“We’ve already had people coming from other departments, even nonengineering students, and we want to keep encouraging that,” said Chase Stewart, a junior in ECE who arrived at electrical engineering via music (he plays guitar, bass and drums). “We’ve had people from architecture, music and anthropology.”
EtherNest follows the creation in 2011 of a student lounge in Abercrombie named after the late William Wilson Jr., longtime ECE professor known affectionately to generations of students as “Dr. Bill.” Jones and Stewart distinguish the rooms by saying EtherNest is aimed at encouraging nonacademic, extracurricular work. All Rice students are welcome to visit EtherNest and are encouraged to complete a 30-minute orientation to its rules and services.
“We got the sense that a lot of students want to take a more hands-on approach to what they’re interested in,” Stewart said. “You can’t take things apart anymore. We’d like to change that.”
—Patrick Kurp is a science writer in the George R. Brown School of Engineering.