Olin’s One-Stop-Shop for Accessible Learning and Creating
January 9th, 2023
After years of reinvention, Olin’s Shop strives to be a welcoming resource for all.
Over the last several years, Olin’s Shop has transformed from a traditional machine shop into an active learning environment focused on inclusivity, accessibility, and creativity.
Daniela Faas, associate professor of the practice and director of fabrication and laboratory operations, took the helm of the Shop in 2016 with the vision to break barriers down in order to build students up.
“A big part of my role is getting as many students involved in the Shop as we can,” says Faas.
“Years ago, this was a traditional shop space in which you had to know what you were doing to use it. Now, the Shop is a vital part of the curriculum, providing support to more than 70 percent of Olin’s courses, and integrated in a holistic and approachable way.”
Within their first couple of weeks on campus, all first-year Olin students are trained to use the machines in the green shop, consisting of sanders, saws, drill presses, and woodworking tools. This knowledge complements student projects undertaken in early required courses like Design Nature, Principles of Engineering and User-Oriented Collaborative Design.
Training is an aspect of the new-and-improved Olin Shop that Faas and her staff of professionals and student Shop Assistants have worked hard to adapt for ultimate accessibility. Jordan Leadley ’20, fabrication specialist and instructor at the Shop, has been instrumental in creating easy-to-digest training materials based on pedagogical research into best practices, as well as prioritizing information to maximize students’ safety, learning, and fun.
“My first year at Olin, I was afraid of the Shop — it looked like a lot of big, scary machines to me,” they say. “I can understand why students might be intimidated, so the first-year green machine training isn’t all about the machines; it’s about getting them involved in the community here and to express our intentions that this is a community learning space where you can celebrate failure and change your capabilities.”
With more than 500 trainings offered per year, sessions are presented in smaller, more manageable chunks to avoid saturation. They are also multimodal, with a library of first-person videos with closed captioning as well as in-person trainings, allowing people to choose the way in which they learn the best.
After green machine training, students can choose what they want to learn to work with, from laser cutters to 3D printers to welding. Faas and her team have been deliberate in growing the space over the last six years, adding in-demand equipment in an organic way.
“Twenty years ago when much of the original equipment was purchased, it was a lot of traditional machinery,” says Faas. “But now digital fabrication is much more common, so the democratization of equipment is really neat. We’re trying to find a nice balance of the curricular needs we have and the volume we support.”
The Shop’s newest addition is a space dedicated to computer numerical control (CNC) fabrication, in which complex, computer-controlled machines precisely manipulate materials in different ways. This space was heavily used by students in “Design for Manufacturing,” co-taught by Faas and Dave Barrett, professor of mechanical engineering. The CNC shop includes four Tormach 770M CNC mills, a vinyl cutter, a vacuum former, and an injection molding machine, with plans to add a CNC lathe very soon.
The goal of accessibility also extends beyond inclusive training. The Shop provides free materials and doesn’t charge for time spent using the space, removing financial concerns from the picture. The Shop also aims to be well-staffed with individuals from all walks of life to encourage a welcoming environment of open learning and making.
“Representation and diversity are very important to us,” says Leadley. “We want to make sure we’re hiring the right people, which means a combination of machining skills and human skills. We wear our name badges with our pronouns, and many of us wear our rainbow badges — we’re trying to make sure everyone knows they belong here.”
This reimagining of the Shop with a focus on accessibility aligns well with Olin’s strategic vision of Engineering for Everyone.
“As we bring a wider range of students into Olin and into engineering in general, we really have to think about a whole new set of questions,” says Faas. “By being more deliberate and inclusive, we’re ensuring that we reach more students and provide more equitable opportunities for growth. We’re making room for everyone at Olin to feel comfortable using the fun and cool stuff we have here.”