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Olin Professors Receive Award for Collaborative Interdisciplinary Project: Engineering at Home


The General Anthropology Division of the American Anthropological Association awarded Olin College Professors Caitrin Lynch and Sara Hendren an honorable mention for their website Engineering at Home, which is a collaborative interdisciplinary project that they unveiled in 2016. The project was honored in the “New Directions” division.

Engineering at Home is a website focused on making DIY tools accessible to help people with disabilities perform daily tasks and, along the way, offer a more expansive view of the maker movement. The website was inspired by Cindy, a Massachusetts woman who lost both of her legs and varying amounts of each of her fingers following a catastrophic heart attack.

“We hope Engineering at Home will be a source for teachers and students to get ideas on new ways to think about technology and innovation in relation to disability, and it can also help people with disabilities to feel empowered to solve their own daily challenges,” says Lynch.

In order to perform everyday tasks, Cindy “Macgyvered” workarounds to common problems she encountered every day: opening a jar, selecting medication from a pill bottle, eating a sandwich. There are dozens of adaptations on the site, gathered under action-word headings such as hold, grasp, and squeeze. The just-a-click-away solutions range from adhesive wall hooks to facilitate jar opening , a carabiner handle to carry a purse, to a small soft-grip tube that helps Cindy apply make-up. Visitors to Engineering at Home are encouraged to create and adapt their own workarounds as they see fit.

In handing out the award, officials described it this way: “Their remarkable project with their students involved the creative design of everyday objects for a woman who had lost both legs and hands due to a severe reaction to medication after a heart attack. The poignant story of this individual, Cindy, becomes the vehicle for Caitrin and Sara to examine on a visually beautiful website basic questions about ‘who, when, and why we build the things we do—and to situate the responses … in the appropriate socioeconomic, political, and historical context[s].’ Their rethinking of the everyday world of things stands as a brilliant and beautiful model for humanizing the commonplace.”

The project is going to be showcased at the V&A Museum in London in an exhibit titled Future Design: Technology Shapes Everyday Life” in 2018.

The New Directions Award is designed to "call attention to the myriad ways anthropologists are expanding our perspectives in the twenty-first century” and to increase appreciation for the “accomplishments of individuals or groups across diverse media and formats as forms of public anthropology.”

Engineering at Home was funded by a grant from the Olin summer research fund.  The students involved with the project are William Lu, Mary Martin, and Toni Saylor.