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Olin Expo: Engineering, beyond the technical

Let’s be honest, the “typical” engineer has a bit of a reputation as a socially inept math and science geek whose idea of a good time is obsessing over the latest piece of technology.

At Olin College, student-engineers learn how to be sensitive to the needs of users and the social context of inventions, and to appreciate  the role of the arts in fostering creativity and innovative design.

This philosophy was on display at Olin’s recent end-of-semester Expo. The hallways of the college’s Academic Center were lined with tables exhibiting posters and cutting-edge devices, presented by Olin students eager to explain their favorite projects from the semester. An audience of Olin faculty, staff, alumni and invitees from the corporate world and local schools swarmed the four floors of the Academic Center, equally eager to drink it all in.

It’s not that the technical focus was lacking — just about every project had some advanced technology at the center of it. There was a solar-powered sailboat designed to cross the ocean, a robotic drummer that was able to detect a beat and play along with a song, and a platform that changed position to keep a bouncing ping-pong ball perfectly balanced — plus plenty of apps, drones, and even a hopping alarm clock.

But in almost every project, the technology was placed in the context of other considerations — social, artistic or personal — aimed at improving people’s lives or solving big problems.

Olin junior Cesar Santana looked at Boston’s water treatment system. His case study of a water treatment plant examined technologies that could improve the system’s ability to recover after shutdowns and deal with new, unregulated contaminants, like drug residues. Santana views his work as a kind of consciousness-raising.

“I hope people become more aware about issues in drinking water and are more in touch with the infrastructure that exists to make their lives easier,” he said.

Junior Annabel Consilvio was standing in front of the “Shifting Rhythms” display. She’s part of a team in Olin’s Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship class working to create a technology, arts and entrepreneurship curriculum for students in low-income communities in Mississippi’s Delta region. They have developed a mobile education space, which will travel from town to town offering afterschool programs to local young people. 

“What our curriculum is hoping to do is both expose youth to more opportunities so that they feel more confident in the future and have more knowledge going forward of what they could be doing, whether that be going to college or pursuing an artist’s career, or something like that,” said Consilvio.

Nur Shlapobersky chose an art installation for his Expo display. Struck by the somber looks of Olin students on presidential election night in November 2016, Shlapobersky began photographing classmates watching the returns and reacting as the evening wore on. A year later, he recorded interviews with the students he’d photographed, asking them to reflect on the night and events since. His installation consisted of the photos and recordings.

“I was really enjoying hearing their stories and they seemed to be cathartic or important to them, also, in some way,” he said. “And I realized that I wanted all of Olin to see the people in their community and to hear their stories as a way to try to understand a bit more of what people are going through nowadays.”

As part of a hackathon, the “Newsblind” team looked into the problem of misleading or inaccurate “fake news.” They developed a web application that uses machine learning to assess the credibility of articles via language analysis. The team would like for the app to become widely available.

“We want to make this into a Chrome web extension, so that you don’t have to go to a separate website to input an article, you can check an article’s reliability just on that same page,” said Siddharth Garimella, a freshman at Olin, who joined teammates Anusha Datar, Mark Goldwater and Jonathan Zerez to come up with the application.

Emotiv is a system that takes on mental health issues facing college students. Emotiv tracks the mental health of students by prompting them at regular intervals to go on a website to rate their emotional states, noting feelings like happiness or frustration over time to produce a visual mood indicator that can flag problems that if left untreated can become debilitating.

The Integrated Product Design team that developed the system, which includes Sara Ballantyne, Min Jang, Jack Rokous, Coltin Urro and Cynthia Yong, hopes to create a business out of it.

“Our target users are the students, but our target market is the school that hopes to improve emotional health and well-being on college campuses,” said Jang.

Some of the projects had a distinct feel of whimsy. “Efflorescence” offered a “magical archway” in which flowers bloom as people walk through. Of course, it’s not magic, but a sophisticated system of electrical wiring, servos and sensors. Users can enjoy it without delving too deeply into all that.

“You don’t have to explain all the complicated engineering stuff behind it,” said Olin sophomore Ana Krishnan, who exhibited the project with teammate Vivien Chen. “It’s just nice to look at." 

If you have a chance, check out our timelapse video of EXPO. 

And if you need even more EXPO in your life, here's a slideshow.