Hannah Mills, a senior in mechanical engineering, shows off her circuit board coasters, which she pulled out of a stereo receiver and cut to size.

S&T students upcycle defunct electronics into art

April 22, 2016 by Greg Katski

In 2014, the world disposed of 92 billion pounds of electronic waste. And that number is only going to rise, according to a report by the United Nations University.

But students in Laurie Myers’ Innovation through Design Thinking class proved that the amount of electronics bound for landfills can not only be reduced; they can also be upcycled and turned into works of art.

Myers’ lesson plan for the week of Feb. 22 asked students to think about the “massive amounts of technology being discarded as products become updated or ‘better.’”

“People are discarding books for digital technology and then discarding their digital technology for something better and faster,” says Myers, lecturer in arts, languages and philosophy. “It’s quite the conundrum.”

Her solution, and challenge to her students: “Create something with this dead or discarded technology instead of trashing it.”

Myers brought dead electronics into her classroom collected from her local trash and recycling center, including old computer keyboards, monitors and towers. Then, students spent the next several weeks in and out of the classroom creating works of art.

Completed projects included part of a circuit board cut into the shape of the state of Missouri and hung from a necklace, and a set of drink coasters comprised of computer keyboard letters.

Montana Long, a senior in information science and technology, created the circuit board necklace pendant. “I love all the intricate parts of circuit boards, and I thought they just needed to be on display,” she says.

In regards to the upcycling project, Long says, “Taking something that no one was going to use and making art with it is just really cool to me.”

Long says that she got her idea from the social media art sharing site Pinterest. “I started doing research online and on Pintrest for what people have done with (circuit boards) in the past, and I saw a couple that had been turned into jewelry.

“I got to thinking about it, and determined it wouldn’t be hard to cut out (the state of) Missouri. I’m a Kansas City girl and thought that would be cool,” she says. “It turned out surprisingly awesome.”

Friends and family liked her circuit board pendant so much that she got multiple requests to make more. “A friend in my office wants me to do the ‘bat symbol.’ He’s a huge Batman fan,” Long says.

Hannah Mills, a senior in mechanical engineering, made drink coasters out of circuit boards.

The finished products astounded Myers. “They were very inventive, and I was very impressed,” she says.

The students also did some design work, taking apart dead computer mice and redesigning them to function better. “We were looking at how the computer mouse is designed, and how it can be made more functional, more comfortable, and more fun,” Myers says.

Myers jokes that she came up with the recycling and upcycling project “just because I can’t throw anything away.” But really, she says, the project is rooted in “empathetic research,” which is based on the needs of the people for which you are designing.

“Being able to present products in ways that are user-focused rather than business-focused is important to me,” Long says. As an information science and technology student, Long says that she anticipates a career in which she’ll be making presentations to business leaders with the concept of “empathetic design” in mind.

Every week, Myers’ Innovation through Design Thinking students work on a different project that relates to empathetic design. These projects provide students with “the opportunity to explore collaboration, rapid prototyping, expression, and how to use the Design Thinking mindset to make a positive impact both personally and professionally,” according to the course description.

Classes are held in the university’s art studio, located at 213 Centennial Hall. Innovation through Design Thinking is listed as Art 3001 in the Missouri S&T course catalog. It is offered in the fall and spring semesters.