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Road Trip

In the middle of January, several Olin students got behind the wheel of the EASE lab trailer and drove it 1,388 miles south to Clarksdale, Mississippi. The trailer is a mobile maker space, developed by Assistant Professor of Computing Amon Millner, with the help of students in his Designing Resources for Empowerment and Making (DREAM) class. It is equipped with materials and machines designed to extend access to STEM empowerment, the charge of Millner's EASE lab. 

The mobile trailer was on loan to seniors Anne LoVerso, Adam Coppola, Ashley Funk, and Aditi Joshi who were traveling to Clarksdale as part of a community development team for Affordable Design and Entrepreneurship (ADE). This senior capstone course involves students working with people in underserved communities to address various challenges. Other projects have included a food processing machine for people in Ghana and a low-cost climate control system to aid agriculture in Massachusetts.

“Our project has been going on for about two years,” said LoVerso. “We have been talking to the community to understand how our resources can align with some of their needs and values.” What they settled on was a mobile maker and learning space that could be run out of a bus or trailer. Bringing the EASE lab to Mississippi was a test of sorts to see if students and families in this Southern town would actually use this kind of space.

Clarksdale sits squarely in the Mississippi Delta. Historical sites that pay tribute to blues musicians who lived and died here dot the town. In fact, the Blues is so ingrained in the history of Clarksdale that the Delta Blues Museum is located here. A strong history of civic engagement, sparked by the Civil Rights movement, continues to this day. However, 32 percent of families in Clarksdale live below the poverty line, and unemployment, particularly in the African American community, remains high. That’s why students in ADE, with the support of civic leaders, have been exploring ways to jumpstart a cycle of improvement.

“We have talked to a lot of young people in Clarksdale who say they want to leave the area,” said Joshi. “They don’t see opportunities in their neighborhoods. So we want to expand their understanding of what they are capable of and help position them with 21st century skills.” Those are long term goals, however, on this trip the purpose was more straightforward, the Olin students wanted to test  how running activities out of a small trailer actually works.

The Olin team parked the EASE trailer in several locations in Coahoma County, including a community center and a library. With some advance help from a local Mayor, the events were attended by dozens of people, including many families. Most of the activities were designed to appeal to middle and high school students. There was a 3D printer, a vinyl cutter, painting supplies, a CNC mill and other machines that support making. “We brought a lot of cardboard and did a lot of furniture construction,” said Funk. The kids made bongo drums, the 3D printer worked nonstop making plastic charms, and students designed and made stickers which they cut with the vinyl cutter.

Joshi, Funk, Coppola and LoVerso also went to the local high school to conduct branding sessions so they would know what the students wanted the space to look like. They worked with the Boys and Girls Club on developing some of the activities. “We really want to employ a teach to learn, learn to teach model,” said Joshi who added that the intention is to have the students, their families and others in the community eventually take over and run the project. The hope is to transfer not just knowledge, but a sense of ownership to the community at large.

Now that the students are back in Massachusetts, they are planning with team members and partners on the next steps to make the Mississippi mobile lab a reality. And that’s where the entrepreneurship part of ADE comes in.

“We are thinking a lot about our business model and getting funding for the space. We are spending time solidifying our pitch,” said LoVerso. “We are also applying for grants, estimating our start-up costs and figuring out how we can sustain such an effort financially.