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Student Team Wins in Contest to Design COVID-Safe Playspace

Never underestimate what three Vassar students can accomplish in a 48-hour brainstorming session. That’s how long it took Kate Walters ’21, Aden Fischer-Brown ’21 and Nola Kim Mayer ’22 to design their award-winning, interactive, COVID-safe playspace, makerBoards.

makerBoard designers (from left) Aden Fischer-Brown ’21, Nola Kim Mayer ’22, and Kate Walters ’21

The Vassar team, known as downUpNY, envisioned three types of mobile Plexiglass windows that participants can use to draw, play checkers, or play percussion instruments (a doodleBoard, checkerBoard, and soundBoard, respectively) and still remain safe by staying on opposite sides of a window.

The students showcased their design this fall at an event in Newburgh NY, about 20 miles from the Vassar campus. They obtained permission from college administrators to attend the event and, according to college protocol, were tested for COVID-19 when they returned to campus. The makerBoard was one of three winners—out of more than 70 entries—in a contest sponsored by Design for Six Feet, a collaborative network of designers, artists, architects and community groups in the Newburgh area.

Fischer-Brown, an urban studies major from Chapel Hill, NC, said he learned about the contest via an Instagram post this summer and alerted Walters and Mayer. “We had already been having conversations about what it would be like to come back to campus in the fall during the pandemic,” he said. “When I saw this post about designing something to help us cope with COVID, we started talking about the need to have interactive things to do outside.”

Fischer-Brown told Walters and Mayer about the contest on a Friday and the deadline for submissions was two days away. “I said, ‘Let’s spend the weekend trying out some ideas,’ and that’s how it happened,” he said.

Drawings of makerBoards created by three Vassar students.

Walters, an urban studies and education double major, was spending the summer in her hometown of Little Rock, AR, while Fischer-Brown and Mayer were living in Poughkeepsie. They consulted with each other throughout the weekend and had a drawing of their maker board ready for submission in time to meet the contest deadline. 

Walters said both children and adults played with the two makerBoards they brought to the Newburgh event. “We supplied markers and erasers for one of the boards, and people made quite a few different drawings,” she said. “The second board had numerous drawings and designs that turned into a mural, with messages like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Register to Vote.’ That was really cool to watch as it happened.”

Newburgh residents try out a makerBoard at an event in the city September 26.

Nola, an urban studies major from Chapel Hill, NC, said she met one of the other contest winners as well as some of the members of Design for Six Feet at the event, and they talked about how to continue to promote and publicize their designs. “Once we won the competition, we were able to find potential sponsors to help us find the best ways to work through the construction phase of our project,” she said.

While the three designers are still considering how to expand their development of makerBoards, they are actively sharing their progress on Instagram (@downupny) and inviting others to make suggestions for improving it. “We see our work as ‘open source,’” Walters said. “We want to share our ideas and we welcome everyone to reuse or adapt our resources to help their own communities. We continue to seek new collaborators.”

Fischer-Brown said he viewed the experience as an example of how the pandemic can trigger new ideas, and he credited Vassar with giving him and his collaborators tools to create the makerBoard. “There’s no way we could have undertaken this without an education that enabled us to think critically and collaboratively about addressing issues in the greater community,” he said. “I’m truly grateful to Vassar.”