Moving from makerspace to dynamic innovation space

Having the right audiovisual technology to support communication and collaboration is important for this purpose-driven space
By: | February 3, 2020
Nick Swayne is founding director of JMU X-Labs at James Madison University in Virginia. He is a UB Tech® 2020 speaker.

Nick Swayne is founding director of JMU X-Labs at James Madison University in Virginia. He is a UB Tech® 2020 speaker.

Many higher education institutions today have a makerspace—a workshop with equipment such as 3D printers and soldering tools so students can work on creative physical projects. At JMU X-Labs at James Madison University in Virginia, we’re taking that space a step further. We are working to distinguish ourselves through an intentional “innovation space.”

What’s the difference between a makerspace and an innovation space? While the equipment in both is similar, there is a significant difference in the nature of activities and the purposeful design of each space.  

Innovation spaces extend the work of makerspaces by enabling the problem-finding, curation and problem-solving process. This transforms the space into a purpose-driven center for developing challenging, nebulous and 21st-century skills.

The most important aspect of an innovation space: the people involved. You must have great people, who are in the right roles, who can work together, who have the right disciplinary knowledge and expertise, and who have access to stakeholders. The second most important aspect—and the focus here—is having the right technology to support communication and collaboration. 

The successes at JMU X-Labs are not because of a state-of-the-art 3D printer or laser cutter. They’re due to the collaboration that occurs among the students, instructors and experts.

Using tech to support collaboration

While laser cutters, 3D printers, vinyl cutters, hand tools and machining equipment are becoming ubiquitous on college campuses—and even making their way into K-12 schools—finding the right technology to enable collaboration in the classroom and beyond continues to challenge instructional technologists.

The successes at JMU X-Labs are not because of a state-of-the-art 3D printer or laser cutter. They’re due to the collaboration that occurs among the students, instructors and experts. That’s the real magic—and technology helps make it happen. Communication and integration technologies, such as the Epson BrightLink Pro 1470s, WebEx and Mersive Solstice, support collaboration and teamwork among diverse, interdisciplinary teams.

When selecting technology, instructional technologists should ask two main questions:  

  1. Does it improve access to experts? While elite schools in urban and suburban areas may have nearly unlimited access to experts, the majority of higher ed institutions and K-12 schools do not. Technology bridges that divide in an economical, reliable and sustainable way. A well-designed innovation space will have technology to facilitate videoconferencing sessions and distance learning. And it will open doors to alumni and industry experts—a great combination for student innovators. At JMU X-Labs, BrightLink Pro displays and Cisco Codec C90 provide flexible, on-demand videoconferencing to bring in outside experts and stakeholders. James Madison University is more than two hours away from a major metropolitan area, yet there is no limit on the availability of alumni and other experts willing to work with students on some of the world’s most vexing problems because the technology is so efficient and effective.
  2. Is it easy to use? Technology should be robust, yet it should be easy enough to use that it facilitates collaboration among team members. Students should walk into the classroom and think: “This is where stuff gets done.” At the same time, the users—instructors and students—should be able to figure out how to use the technology without instructions, tutorials or assistants. We created a video wall in the lab using four Epson BrightLink Pro 1470 series short-throw projectors. They function as a giant, extended desktop; whiteboard; videoconferencing interface; and general-purpose display. Aided by applications such as Mersive Solstice, students can share their screens using any personal device. Files and images can be annotated and highlighted right on the wall and then saved to the source. Also, students and faculty can switch between whiteboard and videoconference modes, making efficient use of their resources. All the technologies work together seamlessly to support student learning.

Making the transformation

JMU X-Labs has become an award-winning innovation space where students can perform traditional makerspace activities, including making laser-cut jewelry or liquid-nitrogen ice cream, and work on larger innovations. Our students partner with organizations such as the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and cybersecurity firm Endgame to come up with solutions for real-world problems. They’ve programmed drones to map riverbeds, designed self-driving vehicles and used virtual reality technology to practice surgery skills. Technology facilitates this work and has helped transform our lab from a makerspace into a true innovation space, preparing the leaders and innovators of tomorrow.


Nick Swayne is founding director of JMU X-Labs at James Madison University in Virginia. He has a record of establishing successful startups and transformations ranging from a multimedia marketing organization in post-conflict Bosnia to a large nonprofit focused on STEM. Swayne is a UB Tech® 2020 speaker, presenting the “Leveraging AV to Create a Dynamic Innovation Makerspace” session.


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