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Olin's Machine Shop Gets a Makeover

Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Aaron Hoover is turning the production shop into a learning environment, with the help of the entire Olin community and a simple mantra in mind: Thought into form. People over process. Community over control.


Recently, Hoover offered a window into the work a team of designers, students and faculty have accomplished so far to turn Olin workspaces into more accessible and inviting places. Right now, the work is focused primarily on the Machine Shop situated on the first floor of the Academic Center.


The project started with the creation of the Strategic Fabrication Committee in 2013, where the goal of “aligning fabrication resources better with the goals of our students and professors” first came into focus. The team studied teaching workshops at Yale University, the Media Lab at MIT and Harvard’s Graduate School of Design to find inspiration for Olin’s own dynamic fabrication area, where beginners and old pros could prototype designs with ease.


After collecting data from the Olin student body the following year, it was revealed that, on average, students used 30 percent of the equipment available to them just once in their time here; and the more inexperienced a student was, the more reluctant they were to use an unfamiliar machine in the fast-paced, production-focused Machine Shop. “[They] don’t want to ask a question and look like an idiot, so they think ‘I’m just going to walk away,” Hoover said, explaining that many novices often feel intimidated and discouraged from prototyping.


The solution has been two-pronged; first, the shop itself is being modified to appear more welcoming and accessible. Tools are now all labeled with their names so no one needs to ask for identification and a cabinet known facetiously as  the “Stock Market” is packed with wood, plastic and metal students might need for a rushed-prototype. Most notably of all, nearly twenty Olin students - known as the Olin NINJAs (Need Information Now? Just Ask!) are trained on all the equipment and supervise the Machine Shop upwards of eighty hours a week: a presence that’s especially helpful when a student requires mechanical engineering work done at a very late hour.


Secondly, Olin faculty are in the process of shifting projects and goals for their courses to incorporate more hands-on mechanical teaching in the lab, in a move Hoover called “curriculum integration.” This spring’s QEA project encouraged students to use the Lab’s resources to laser cut and shrink wrap boats, thus integrating the class and subject matter with the materials. “It’s not the focus of the class,” Hoover said. “But having the resources to turn a concept into a physical reality is just a really powerful story.”


For the rest of the summer, the team will continue to improve upon the culture and the accessibility of the Machine Shop, incorporating coursework into hands-on mechanical engineering and make it informative and engaging. “The common process is design, analyze, create specification, then fabricate,” Hoover said. “I think that model makes sense when you’re past the learning component, but in a teaching and learning context like Olin, [the process] is far more messy, more circular than linear. The space should reflect that.”