Idea Lab searches for ways to encourage creativity in virtual setting

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The Idea Lab. Photo by Celia Johnson ’22.

Sivali Bhandary, Contributing Writer

Since the pandemic hit in March 2020, the Macalester community has lost physical access to one of the most popular spots on campus, the Idea Lab. The Idea Lab is a workspace located on the second floor of the library stocked with craft supplies and art tools. It is used for class workshops, independent student projects and study breaks and is recognized as a vibrant hub constantly flowing with creativity and inspiration. This year, however, the art and crafting materials have been stowed away for COVID-19 safety reasons. Although the physical space of the Idea Lab is still there, it lacks a core ingredient: the living, creative energy of students. 

Lily Schwegler ’23 spent a lot of her time in the Idea Lab last year. 

“I miss the feeling of community in the Idea Lab, the sense of general camaraderie between everyone working on different projects,” Schwegler said. “When I go to the Idea Lab now, it’s eerily quiet and I’m often one of the only few people in there, compared to last year when it was the loudest floor of the library.” 

Program Manager to the Department of Entrepreneurship & Innovation Jody Emmings, who is also responsible for the behind the scenes operation of the Idea Lab, claimed that the Macalester community seems to feel that loss of connection, almost to say that they “feel sad” when they walk into the second floor of the library to witness the Idea Lab’s emptiness.

Emmings and her team have strived to keep the Idea Lab’s spirit alive in virtual and socially distanced spaces. In addition to running MacNest, an online cohort program that connected 13 Macalester students to internships in the Twin Cities this school year, the staff kept their student workers on their toes with exciting weekly design challenges since the fall, most being curated by students themselves. 

The @mac_eship Instagram page flows with the dynamism of the students’ imaginations, as student staff have worked individually and in pairs to prepare how-to videos, movie trailers, graphics for hypothetical businesses and making kits, comic strips based on Shark Tank, public art installations to spread love and more. 

Saby Cortez ’22  has been a student worker with the Idea Lab for two years now and is involved with the remote structure of its work this year.

“I like that they let me set time aside to do something creative every week,” Cortez said. “Even when I’m kinda stressed about getting it done alongside with school stuff I find myself really enjoying the space to slow down and just make something without feeling like I’m wasting time.” 

Through weekly staff meetings with alumni mentors and coworkers in addition to virtual student staff-led craft workshops for the rest of the Macalester community, connections aren’t dead, they just seem to be taking new forms.

“Although free exploration might be limited by the unavailability of supplies, creativity has been adjusted to brainstorming, ideation and virtual design,” Emmings said.

The virtual Idea Lab has also extended into the larger community and the ethos of the workspace is reflected in events beyond its physical space. Through an initiative called Idea Lab Shake Ups, Emmings works with faculty to run creative workshops in Zoom classrooms, customized to their syllabus, which encourage students to explore the biggest questions of their coursework in fresh collaborative ways. 

Ethan Hyslop ’23 was in one of the classes that Emmings and Entrepreneurship and Innovation Administrative Coordinator Pete Hall visited for one of these shake ups. 

“When Jody and Pete visited my ‘Consumerism’ class last fall, they had us express course concepts visually, which activated a whole different way of thinking from the usual writing and discussion,” Hyslop said. “It was a refreshing change of pace from the otherwise traditional lecture structure of the class.” 

Beyond the physical space and supplies, for many students, the Idea Lab represents hope, creativity and connection. When the Mac Daily advertised the chance for students to receive a cheery postcard from the Idea Lab, 130 students quickly signed up. Students continue to reach out for advice on projects and ideas for how to be creative with friends. Larger community events facilitated by the Idea Lab like President Suzanne Rivera’s Halloween Challenge had a great turnout and students excitedly designed amazing, safe trick or treating strategies. Pieces of Mac was an installation by the Idea Lab that brought the colorful spirit of the space onto the campus lawn with its clothesline of bright cloth squares during module 2. The Idea Lab continues to find ways to amplify the vibrant creativity and hopeful energy of students.

Nili Barnoon ’24 has not experienced the Idea Lab as it existed pre-COVID, but she feels connected to it through stories that have been passed down from upperclassmen. 

“The remote nature of classes and most community building spaces and activities has left me feeling very disconnected this year,” Barnoon said. “However, hearing stories of the creative collaboration that takes place in the Idea Lab excites me about the possibilities of the future.”

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