"I've seen a lot done with coconuts..."

Brittany L. Strachota

Class projects at Olin often require some unusual activities. This week, I experienced some of the best project preparations to date.

My Materials Science team (we call ourselves The Lovely Bunch) is beginning our study of coconut coir; you know, the hairy part. Apparently it's used all over the world as mattress material, rope, fishing nets, flooring tiles, and often found here in the form of a doormat. We want to test the compositional and mechanical properties of the stuff, and try to figure out why it can be used as both soft cushioning and a durable surface for scraping mud from boots.

The problem? Most of the coir is removed from the coconuts sold in local grocery stores. At this point, we had only doormat samples to work with; the acquisition of real, live coconuts was critical. Not sure if we would be able to procure the materials necessary for the project, we called around, hoping to find something that could work. Turns out, Whole Foods in Wellesley gets a weekly shipment of coconuts, but doesn't usually sell them. They cut them up and sell the chunks packaged. As long as we called ahead, the store would be happy to set aside a few for us to purchase whole. Sam ('13) emailed us with the good news: "The guy said they were the brown, very hairy coconuts..."
The three of us waited anxiously for the day the coconuts rolled into town. Finally, on a fateful Wednesday afternoon, it was our time to collect. Sam called ahead, just to confirm. All we heard on our end of the conversation was, "Yes, the hard, hairy, brown ones." We frantically arranged a ride to the store, bade our professor farewell, and set off on a mission. I must admit, I was actually excited to go buy coconuts. There was an electric thrill through the air as we stepped into the produce department and an attendant called to the back room. After what felt like an eternity, we spied a beaming Whole Foods employee headed our way, cradling four coconuts in his arms. We were nearly jumping out of our skin at this point, cheering for the coconuts.

The smiles melted from our faces as the fruits came into sight -- close to hairless.

We tried to explain to the poor man who had brought them to us that these were not at all what we were looking for. This was merely stubble; what we wanted was a beard. About to give up the trip as an unfortunate waste of time, we noticed some fair amount of coir hidden beneath the dirt around the shell. Picking away at it, we extracted a decent length -- certainly enough to test in the lab. We spoke to the produce man, asking if we could pull the coir from a few more.

He returned a few minutes later with the entire shipment of forty coconuts and told us to have at it. The three of us spent well over half an hour pulling coir from thirty-seven of the nuts in the middle of the grocery store traffic. Surprisingly, it took about twenty minutes before anybody said a word to us.

The first was a fellow customer, who approached hesitantly, finally asking simply, "What are you doing?" We described our project and she explained that she visits Panama on a regular basis, where coconuts abound. She declared, "I've seen a lot done with coconuts...I thought I had seen everything!"

Our second encounter was not so friendly. Another employee, after observing our actions for a good time, accosted us harshly, demanding, "What are you doing to the poor coconuts? Who is your friend here?" (I have relayed these quotes verbatim.) We began to to tell her that we meant the coconuts no harm, but she wasn't having any of it until we dropped the "Olin" bomb. [An aside: I have found that one can get away with just about anything if you tell people you're a college student doing research. Seriously. Try it.] She was then excited to tell us that she knows an Olin employee. Naturally, we asked her who. "Oh, he works in administration...you probably wouldn't know him..." "Try us." As it so happens, one of our team had met with him earlier the same day and I saw him at an Olin party in Wisconsin in August. As students here, we often forget that our small community is unusual.

Once we appeased her, we completed our daunting task, and left the store with a bag of coir strands, three extra coconuts, and really sore fingers. And our project has just begun.

Sam and Eric ('13) display our bounty in the MatSci lab. Note the produce bag full of coir. From 37 coconuts.

Other things I've done this week (because it's been a pretty good week):

  • Rode a tandem bike with a friend into Needham (an item from my life to-do list).
  • Ate real berries for breakfast in the dining hall!
  • Attended FWOP's production of "Zanna, Don't!" And enjoyed it immensely.
  • Completed a diversity training workshop over the weekend (apparently, I'm able to communicate with aliens now).
  • Went out for ice cream with a family from my hometown.
  • Viewed temperature and humidity data from inside Olin beehives.
  • Got a [brief] lesson in mixing from Andrew ('13).
  • Dropped Andrew ('13)'s name in a blog post.
  • Started a business (I am now an art curator) with a team of students (more on that to come later).
  • Hosted a prospective student overnight.
  • Coached a local FIRST LEGO League team (a couple times).
  • Worked with thirty local kids to build rockets made from soda bottles. It is indeed as awesome as it sounds.
Posted in: Class of 2013