Thursday, September 30, 2010

In the Basement with Boston's BUILDSers

(The headline isn't a typo, it's just not a very good headline.) 

Walking in, it's pretty much what I expected; the room is crowded with college kids, hunched around tables and over computers, nose-deep in books or tearing apart electrical equipment. The walls have murals of sci-fi landscapes and old-style phone switchboards, and there are power tools and wires and metal cabinets just about everywhere you look. There are more females than I’d expected, and that's a pleasant surprise.

This is the headquarters of BUILDS, a workshop and research lab tucked away in the basement of Boston University's Math and Computer Science building.  While BU has more than 550 clubs, this one in particular has something that most clubs don't - freedom. BUILDS is one of the few student-organized, student-managed, student-directed clubs at BU.  While the club still has the prerequisite faculty advisor, the members are the chief decision-makers.

"BU was starved for a space like this," club treasurer and BU junior Valerie Young says, "a place for open creativity and expression."

(It would have made my life easier if one of them had been named Bob.)
The club's philosophy is based around a "hacker ethic," which is deeply exploratory, constructive, and free. It’s the old hacker philosophy; the digital realm is a neutral zone, and hackers seek to test the tentative boundaries of this evolving world, illuminating security risks and contributing to the general knowledge-pool.

When I first meet her, Valerie is mired in thoughts over a new campaign the club is launching to draw more female members. She pores over a drawing of a defiant, overalls-clad girl gripping a wrench and looking off into the distance. Valerie’s looking for a slogan for this future poster, for the right words to speak to the "inner badass" of women on campus. She’s also the lead on a project that will create a musical staircase in one of BU's student unions, using infrared emitters and sensors. Everyone in BUILDS has many facets.

Meanwhile, the weekly BUILDS club meeting has ended and the night has turned into a study session. Most of the remaining members have a mid-term to prepare for, and they're discussing some example problem, making references to something that sounds like binary code.  The group effort is effortless.

One guy keeps track of the different angles of attack on a large wipe-board, and different members throw out ideas and questions and lamentations. Some follow along on computers and some are scrawling on torn-off pieces of paper-towel. I offer them some sheets of paper from my note-pad, but apparently it's a matter of personal preference.

The club is designed to bring people together and provide resources to realize visions, current vice-president and college sophomore John-Nicholas Furst tells me. It’s all about being able to bring your ideas to life, whether that means garnering team interest in a larger project, or just having access to resources for something you're doing on your own. The club has drawn attention from faculty, giving the club some great mentors, but there's an inherent freedom that was negotiated and fought for, and that's what the officers want to preserve.

(That's their name.)

John has time to tell me this briefly before he's drawn away by another BUILDS member who has been tearing apart iPods. Apologizing, John says he has to run; he's working on acquiring a rather large transistor for the Tesla coil the club is building.

Part workshop, part support-group for DIY-ers, BUILDS combines a hacker core with an engineering ambition, where members pitch, design, learn, and build for the sheer joy of it. And every Friday night, they have a lock-picking seminar.

"It's mostly social," Valerie says. "Besides, you have to do it regularly or else you lose it."