Storage containers transformed into learning space at Loy Farm
For the last #MakeElon workshop of the semester, attendees drove out to Loy Farm to tour the Container Space. Environmental studies professor Robert Charest and his research assistant, junior Christian Smoke, introduced what the Container Space is, how it is being used, and offered a look into the future with spaces like these, both on campus and beyond.
Creating the Container Space
For Charest, it’s all about leaving the classroom for a more comprehensive learning experience. Charest started leading his courses at University of North Caroline at Greensboro in out-of-the-classroom projects, which he said was more relevant for his students.
When Charest arrived at Elon, there was huge discussion about what would become of Loy Farm. A place to hold graduation? A recreational space for students? With some extensive planning and some good luck, the environmental studies department asked to use part of the farm to make a space for course instruction and individual projects. The university agreed.
The container space was made with shipping containers, which Charest likes to use because of their flexibility and non-permanence. His Elon courses designed the space and laid down the framework for the container space, which took about a year to design and implement.
“We started making things happen relatively quickly,” Charest said. “We started with the bike rack, and broke ground on the space during winter 2012/2013. We did all of the infrastructure work, which was done in the fall 2013. The space went up in the spring.”
Using the Container Space
Not only was the container space student-designed and constructed, it is now a space for Charest to continue to teach students. As of now, he uses the space for a workshop as his courses start to build products.
“The [original] idea was to use space to conduct my design and architecture classes,” Charest said. “We’re looking at designing and building responsible and sustainable product design and furnishing for Alamance County schools, community centers—that kind of thing.”
Beyond those products, Charest’s courses are also experimenting in microhousing. The microhouse movement focuses on creating small-scale, but fully functional houses that are more environmentally friendly and sustainable. The introductory environmental studies course is applying the movement’s principles to a semester-long project.
“Our second focus in microhousing,” Charest said. “My ENS 110 course this semester is actually working on a 50-square foot house with a bathroom inside. It’s a space for three people to sleep, a galley kitchen, a sleeping loft, and a little outhouse. We’re building it in modular parts.”
But Charest thinks the container space can be used beyond curriculum-based academic work. Right now, Charest is helping a few students with personal projects with the use of the container space’s equipment.
“Through word of mouth, students are getting wind of what we’re doing here,” Charest said. “There’s been several little projects. One [project] is [with] incubator boxes for bees; another student is converting his vehicle into an extreme vehicle. It’s essentially a microhouse within a pick-up truck.”
Right now, the container space is only used by those in Charest’s classes and those individual students who reached out to him directly. While Charest expressed interest in allowing more students access to the container space as a place to work and create, he acknowledges that there are a few things they need to work out first.
“What we need to think about is student safety,” Charest said. “We can’t just have key card on the door for everyone to use. There needs to be some sense of training in how to use the tools safely. Also, you need to think about the maintenance of the tools. It’s easier to control within these class scenarios and outside projects. If we have more students developing cool projects out here, the tools can weaken.”
Despite the logistics that still need to be worked out, Charest wants to find new ways to integrate the container space into the Elon community. He has been working with Dan Reis of the Teaching and Learning Technologies Department to find ways to incorporate the container space into the growing maker movement on campus.
Their plans are in preliminary stages, but Charest says they have their eye on finding a way to connect all the maker-type spaces on campus as a community in its own right.
“Dan and I have discussed and asked, ‘How can we connect and make the several spaces on campus, like the engineering shop and the new maker hub?’” Charest said. “Right now, these spaces are very insular. There’s very little duplication between the engineering shop and the maker space and here [the Container Space]. It might be nice to see how we can knit this community together.”