Illini Gadget Garage will provide a space to repair electronics on campus

from left: William Bullock, Joy Scrogum, and Martin Wolske
Martin Wolske
Martin Wolske, Teaching Assistant Professor

UI-04-garage_gadget150805-014-cmyk.jpg?i You’ve dropped your cellphone and cracked the screen. Or your computer needs a memory upgrade, the headphone jack no longer works or the hard drive has failed.

You’ve had the electronics for several years, and you could just buy the latest device with the newest features.

Or you could fix the one you have. If repairing an electronic device yourself sounds prohibitively complex and you aren’t sure where to start, help will soon be available on the University of Illinois campus.

The Illini Gadget Garage will open this semester. It will be a place for collaborative repair, modeled after the Campus Bike Center, only for electronics.

The goal of the Gadget Garage project—part of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center—is to extend the useful life of electronic products and reduce electronic waste.

Joy Scrogum, coordinator of the Sustainable Electronics Initiative, William Bullock, professor and chair of industrial design in the School of Art and Design, and Martin Wolske, a research scientist and adjunct faculty member in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science, developed the idea for the project. They’ll launch the Gadget Garage this fall for a pilot year, with the help of a $95,000 grant from the Student Sustainability Committee, and they’ll gauge community needs for electronics repair and develop a plan to make the project self-sustaining.

The Gadget Garage will serve U. of I. students and staff. The service will be free to students during the pilot year. An annual membership fee is being considered for campus staff, similar to that used by the Campus Bike Center, to make the project sustainable. A fee structure has not been set.

The Gadget Garage will be staffed by students who will help with personal devices, but not those owned by the U. of I. The inventory control system for the university won’t allow them to be repaired by the Gadget Garage, although Bullock hopes that can change eventually.

Those using the Gadget Garage won’t just drop off a device and come back to pick it up once it’s repaired. Students will help owners of the devices figure out the problems and how to solve them.

Scrogum hopes people will be less intimidated at the thought of fixing their electronics, “so they don’t get the idea that ‘I don’t have the power to fix it, so I’ll just replace it.’”

At the same time, students will have hands-on experience in troubleshooting and repairing electronics and in technical writing. The Gadget Garage will partner with the website, which is donating some tools to the project. The website has a technical writing project for people to write guides to fixing various problems with electronics. Bullock and Wolske anticipate giving assignments that will require students to write technical guides for some of the problems they’ve helped Gadget Garage’s customers solve.

Bullock teaches about hazardous electronic waste as part of a sustainability and manufacturing class. He’s developing an independent study in electronics repair, design and marketing for the fall semester for graduate and undergraduate students who will be involved with Gadget Garage. He hopes to have a team of engineering, industrial design and marketing students who will fix electronics, write technical repair guides, work on a marketing plan for the Gadget Garage and come up with better designs for electronics.

“I hope designers and engineers will see, if this (electronic device) had been designed and built a bit differently, it would be a lot easier to take apart and repair,” Bullock said.

Wolske teaches a network systems class that includes a service learning component. The class will meet in the Gadget Garage space, and students will have the option of volunteering at the Gadget Garage for the service learning part of the class.

He is introducing a new course on informal learning spaces and how the physical environment affects teaching and learning. Students in that class will also be involved with Gadget Garage, looking at how the space might be designed to inspire people to learn about new technologies, rather than be intimidated by them. Wolske wants to encourage tinkering and demystify technology.

He also wants his students to develop a greater sophistication in selecting technologies that will last longer and be more ethical in terms of environmental and human rights issues.

Bullock is particularly concerned about the environmental consequences of manufacturing electronics.

“There is exponential growth in demand for electronics in developing nations,” Bullock said, and with that comes environmental hazards, both in the carbon, precious metals and petrochemical processing it takes to produce new devices and batteries, and in issues of how to recycle the components and reclaim materials.

Part of the goal of the Gadget Garage is to educate students and the public about e-waste and environmental issues.

“I often say electronics is a great poster child for pushing people to think about sustainability, because everyone has gadgets,” Scrogum said. “It’s a great way to introduce certain ideas, like planned obsolescence or technical obsolescence.”

The garage will help owners work on more than computers and cell phones, Scrogum said. Customers can bring in any kind of electronic device, including tablets, cameras and household appliances with electronic components.

“If it’s got some sort of electronic component and you can carry it in, it’s fair game,” Scrogum said.

The Gadget Garage will be in Natural History Survey Storage Building #3, at 1833 S. Oak St., just north of Hazelwood Drive. Beginning September 14, it will be open Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 2:00 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.