College reinvents “shop” class for the digital era

Illini Gadget Garage aims to empower students and faculty by teaching them how to fix their broken devices and help improve electronic sustainability.

gadget-repair-electronicsA new electronics repair center at the University of Illinois is setting out not only to fix broken devices, but also to teach their owners how to do it themselves.

Called the Illini Gadget Garage, the shop will be located directly on campus for students and faculty to bring in their broken electronics. There, staff will collaboratively work with owners to assess the problem and teach them how to fix their device on their own whenever possible.

“One of the questions I’ve been looking at is what knowledge is really needed for this kind of work,” said Martin Wolske, a research scientist and faculty member in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science. “Do you need all the details, or just the skills to do the research? The Gadget Garage is first and foremost a learning center, where visitors discover what’s inside their broken device. Being a repair center comes next.”

A major inspiration for the shop, which is funded by a 95 thousand dollar grant from the student Sustainable Electronics Initiative, is the idea that with greater knowledge of how their devices work, owners will be able to better maintain them. And, indeed, greater device longevity is an increasingly important ideal in today’s tech environment…and tech-enabled campus.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as of 2013 the total amount of abandoned electronic waste in the world’s waste stream amounted to 1.87 million short tons. The same year, only 40 percent of electronics that were ready for end-of-life management were actually collected for proper recycling.

“The Gadget Garage provides the opportunity for teaching sustainability involving electronics, with lots of special issues involved in everything from manufacturing to the planned obsolescence of older devices when making new ones,” said Joy Scrogum, another lead developer of the Gadget Garage and a coordinator of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative. “It’s all about taking sustainability into the realm of relatability.”

Going Beyond Electronics

For the Illini Gadget Garage, one major aspect of this mission entails teaching people that “electronics” extend beyond merely smartphones and laptops to literally any device that contains an electronic component. Thus far, everything from a clock radio, coffee maker, audio mixer and even a musical greeting card has been brought into the shop alongside the expected phones and computers. So long as it can be carried into the Gadget Garage, the staff will work with the owner to learn how the device is fixed, no matter the brand or how unconventional the item may be.

As of now, the shop’s staff will mainly consist of graduate students from Wolske’s classes, but there will also be openings for undergraduates to apply to volunteer as well.

The Illini Gadget Garage opened September 14 for a beta testing phase, and is expected to become fully active at the start of the spring semester when construction is completed on the Gadget Garage’s location. All students and faculty will be able to patron the shop free of cost for its pilot year, though an annual membership fee for faculty is being considered.

Scorgum says she hopes that eventually, though, the Illini Gadget Garage will become financially self-sustainable beyond just the first year, perhaps through hosting workshops and other events in the space.