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Mobile Collaboratory Gaining Momentum

Monday, December 2, 2013

This fall a team that includes associate professors of architecture Shannon Criss and Nils Gore received a $29,000 Tier II Research Grant from the Office of the Provost to build what they call a Mobile Collaboratory for Civic Engagement, or MoCoLab.

KU’s Research Investment Council made the award. The intent of the grants are to support the University’s five-year strategic plan, Bold Aspirations.

A used Airstream trailer purchased in September is the starting point for the project. During the spring semester Department of Architecture students will transform it into a community-room on wheels to “take scholars to the people.”

The MoCoLab will be a resource that researchers and faculty can check out for specific projects, and driven to and set up in Kansas communities for any number of purposes: needs assessments, the seeking of opportunities, or to devise and initiate projects that hopefully will prove to be transformative. The mobile lab will make KU competitive for external grants that require researchers to have a regular presence in a local community.

“When I travel around the state I run into a lot of smart people who have good ideas that need to be taken advantage of,” said Criss, “and when I talk to colleagues on campus I find that many of them need to get out in the world in order to do their work. This project is about bringing these two groups together in a truly reciprocal, working collaboration.”

The fall semester has spent been assessing and cleaning the 1972-era, 31-foot Sovereign Twin Land Yacht, and getting input from its potential users. Next semester a renovation will commence. It will include a complete gut of the interior, and upgrading of the trailer’s mechanics, lighting, and electrical systems, as well as the installation of WiFi and computer equipment, and furniture.

Alternative energy and thermal comfort systems will be developed in collaboration with the EcoHawks, an automotive-oriented sustainable energy research group within the KU School of Engineering.

“The Airstream is an iconic RV that has been around for decades,” said Gore. “They are instantly recognizable. The challenge for us will be to maintain the coolness of the exterior while designing and building an interior that lives up to the promise that the image provides. I can tell that next semester’s group of students are excited by the challenge.”

A kickoff event for soliciting user input was held November 14 at the SADP’s East Hills Construction Innovation Lab, where the MoCoLab is currently housed. Several dozen potential users gathered there for food and beverage, and the opportunity to stick suggestions for the MoCoLab’s use to its aluminum skin. The activity was sponsored by the KU Center for Civic and Social Responsibility; Office of Undergraduate Studies; Spencer Museum of Art, and School of Architecture, Design and Planning.

November 22 the MoCoLab made its first onsite appearance at the Lied Center during KU’s Global Entrepreneurship Celebration, as well as being the inspiration for a student competition. Four student groups presented their ideas about how to use the MoCoLab as a means of enhancing economic opportunity for the citizens of Wyandotte County, Kans.

The winning scheme, developed by Department of Design students Emma Murano, Brandon Wood, and Kent Diasabeygunawardena, would incorporate the MoCoLab into a social startup called "ShareStream." It would use the trailer to help small businesses in Wyandotte reach new markets around the Kansas City area.

“We’ve been dreaming about and planning this for many months. I’m really looking forward to having the students start working on it in earnest,” said Criss.

The MoCoLab will be making more area appearances next spring.

In addition to Criss and Gore, research participants include Andrea Witczak, director, Center for Civic and Social Responsibility; Vicki Collie-Akers, assistant research professor, Life Span Institute; Marilu Goodyear, director, School of Public Affairs and Administration, and Yo Jackson, associate professor, Applied Behavioral Science.