As normal life splintered and students scattered around the world, Courtnie Chan ’20, an officer in the student club Invention Corps, told her comrades to take it easy. Drop your work, if needed — mental health comes first.
Nicole Brown and Annalise Phillips, staff members at the UC Berkeley Library and partners on one of the club’s projects, echoed the call. Feel free to put this down, they said, and pick it up when life seems whole.
Thanks, but no thanks, the students responded.
Founded at Berkeley in 2017, Invention Corps is a dynamic group of around 40 students who combine diverse skills and backgrounds to tackle real-world problems — from building a mobile app to make museums feel more accessible to designing kiosks for fresh water in a rural part of Vietnam. This spring, club members turned their talents to Moffitt Library’s Makerspace, where they helped design a space that can invite and ignite the creativity running through campus.
But, like the rest of the university, Moffitt has been closed for months. Inventive to its core, however, the student club persevered, dreaming up a new future even as the present lingers on.
“These projects are what is keeping people sane and connected to what was normal,” says Chan, the club’s chief project officer. “When something huge happened, our projects didn’t fall apart. If anything, I feel they came closer together.”
Making an impact
Each semester, students in Invention Corps partner with local organizations, researchers, and companies to inject their expertise into a range of budding innovations, all somehow related to health, poverty, society, or the environment. After an electric “pitch night,” with presentations from potential partners, the club selects a batch of projects for the semester. Teams are crafted around the challenges, each a colorful cocktail of backgrounds, interests, and work styles.
The key, says Zulaika Zulkephli ’20, the club’s chief sustainability officer, is “having as many eyes on a problem as possible.”
The club worked on six projects this past spring, including an app to help Alemany Farm, in San Francisco, track data about its fruit trees; product designs for Cal Dining’s work to combat food insecurity; and an app that lets patients undergo physical therapy remotely.
“More than anything, our club is about wanting to make some kind of social impact,” Zulkephli says. “We really want to show how small actions can actually make a difference.”
Last year, Zulkephli worked on a project with Pinpoint Science, a Bay Area biotech company. Her team designed a device to test biological samples, such as saliva or blood, for various pathogens and also built a corresponding mobile app. The device was originally made to diagnose influenza, among other diseases. But in April, the company reached out to the club for permission to apply its designs to a hand-held test for COVID-19.
“We could not imagine how lucky we were to be involved with that,” Zulkephli says.
‘Where the magic happens’
On the first floor of Moffitt, the Invention Corps team encountered an entirely new world of challenges — and opportunities to leave its mark.
Moffitt’s Makerspace is filled with tools for invention: 3-D printers, button-makers, sewing machines, and more. It’s a space for students to experiment with their creativity and bring their biggest ideas to life — from repurposing old clothing to combat fast fashion to 3-D printing robotic parts and medical devices.
“The Library’s whole goal is to give this experience to students for free, with no obligation or anything they’re asking for,” says Zulkephli, adding that similar makerspaces on campus charge hefty access fees. “I think that’s truly an amazing thing.”
The space is straddled, however, by open study areas, along with a computer lab, classroom space, and storage. The challenge, Zulkephli says, was to create an identity for the Makerspace “so that even a space that doesn’t have walls can have some kind of structure.”
For Phillips and Brown, the Library mentors for the club, the goal was twofold: to build up the Makerspace, ensuring it meets the needs of current users, while also expanding its reach to bring in new ones.
To that end, Invention Corps’ Makerspace team — with students from disciplines including bioengineering, psychology, architecture, and statistics — worked on a couple of things: a detailed map laying out Moffitt’s first floor; graphic designs for postcards and signage; and an interview guide for librarians to survey members of the campus community on their needs and desires for the space.
The club’s work will help the Library rethink not only the Makerspace, but also Moffitt’s planned metamorphosis into the Center for Connected Learning, a revolutionary hub for students.
“The whole idea of the Center for Connected Learning and the Makerspace is that it’s for students, by students,” Brown says. “Annalise has expertise, I have expertise, but the students have the missing link.
“That’s where the magic happens — having all those pieces together.”
With none of the team actually allowed in the space, however, those pieces had to shift. Before (you know what), Zulkephli would meet with Phillips once a week to discuss the project. That still happened via Zoom, the video-calling platform, though the entire team hopped on the calls.
“Half of the team is in another country — Taiwan, Canada — so we’re all spread out.” Zulkephli says. “We are all really dedicated to maintaining some sense of normalcy.”
And Phillips, lead mentor to the students, had to get creative. After setting up a mini-makerspace back home, Phillips gave online tutorials on software and equipment to the students — such as how to work the vinyl cutter, used to print the Makerspace map — offering new skills and insights for their work.
Ultimately, the project was not just an alliance of talents and skills, but also a common wellspring of positivity and hope.
“The passion part of my work is working with students, so it’s been super helpful to have a cohort of students who are really engaged and invested in these projects,” Phillips says. “It’s good for me to think of the future — this is not forever; this is not how it will always be. One day I’ll see your face in person again.”
Illustration by A. Hamilton