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EtherNest allows space for innovation

By Jennifer Shen     1/20/14 6:00pm

A crowd of more than 50 people gathered Friday, Jan. 17 to celebrate the launch night of EtherNest, a room in the Abercrombie Engineering Laboratory that will serve as a collaborative space for students to explore creative uses of technology.

EtherNest's main organizer Reed Jones said EtherNest was born out of a conversation with associate professor of computer science Lin Zhong, electrical and computer engineering department chair Behnaam Aazhang and professor of computer science Joseph Cavallaro near the beginning of the fall semester.

"Initially, [we] were interested in finding a way for engineering students to pursue projects that were not academically related," Jones, a McMurtry College senior, said.

Zhong said he thought of the idea for EtherNest while reading Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs. In the book, Isaacson describes the electronics hobbyist community where Jobs met Steve Wozniak.

"I saw that when you get like-minded folks to mingle and challenge them, great things can happen," Zhong said. "I felt there was a need for such environments at Rice, especially for students who are interested in building things with computers and electronics."

As the plan developed, the organizers wanted EtherNest to be available for all students who are interested in experimenting with technologies, Jones said. Students who complete a 30-minute orientation process will be able to access the space. The dates of the orientation will be available on EtherNest's Facebook page and through its mailing list.

EtherNest will provide hardware tools such as soldering irons and launch pads, most of which are currently funded by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Jones said EtherNest is seeking additional funding from companies, and Texas Instruments has already donated some tools.

Zhong said he helped to get funding from the ECE department because he wanted ECE majors to get exposure to hands-on projects early on, in addition to getting more students to do fun things with electronics and computers regardless of their majors.

EtherNest will host workshops in the coming weeks to get students started, Jones said. Planned activities for these workshops include teaching students how to put programmable lights on bags and bicycles.

Jones said the name EtherNest came from a 4 a.m. brainstorming session when they were sitting next to an Ethernet port.

"We wanted something that conjured images of a creative technical space without being too abstract," Jones said. "We liked the name partially because Ethernet is a networking technology, which to me evokes collaboration."

Former president of the Rice chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Richard Latimer said he is excited to see where EtherNest is going.

"I had the opportunity to help form the IEEE Dr. Bill Lounge, and I witnessed how this location became a hub for Elec culture," Latimer, an electrical engineering graduate student, said. "Similarly, EtherNest is going to be a major hub for innovation and creativity at Rice."

Martel College junior Julia Hossu said she appreciated the ease of accessing EtherNest compared to the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, which has more tools but can be hard to get permission to use and can be intimidating for non-engineering majors.

"I feel like EtherNest is a good mix of cool things, hangout space and accessibility for students with more tech-heavy interests," Hossu said.

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