Pretending I'm A MechE

A few months ago, I wrote a post on trying to figure out my major. The big contenders were Engineering with Computing, Engineering with Robotics, and Electrical and Computer Engineering. (For what it's worth, I've since decided on E:C.) One major that was never even remotely in the running was Mechanical Engineering. So it's kind of curious that last semester I spent a lot of my time doing mechanical design.

There's this wonderful class at Olin called Principles of Engineering, or PoE for short. In the first few weeks of PoE, you go through a few labs that make sure you have some necessary skills, like using an Arduino and writing Python and running a motor. Then, you're put onto a team of four or so students, and told to make something cool. The only rules are that it has to have compelling mechanical, electrical, and software components; that you have a budget of only $250; and that it has to work. A lot of cool projects come out of this class, like the Confectionery Cannon (which was featured on hackaday and Gizmodo, among a few other sites) and Herald (which still gets frequent emails from companies looking to purchase the technology).

My project was the coolest of the coolest. You know that part in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, where Dumbledore's Army has to meet in secret, so Hermione bewitches these Gold Galleons (which are their coins), so that when Harry taps his Galleon with his wand, the serial numbers on everyone else's coins change, so that anyone "in the know" can decode when the next meeting time is? That was our project. To make that.

I had a wonderful team of three good friends of mine: two electrical engineers, and one mechanically-inclined roboticist. Plus me, the software person. The more we scoped out our plans for the project, the more we realized this would be a very mechanically intricate project; so I bit the bullet and moved to the mechanical team.

It turned out, I knew absolutely nothing about mechanical design. This was not a world I had ever really stepped into before. Decisions and constraints that were so obvious to my MechE roommate were totally strange and obscured to me. I spent many, many hours doing what any MechE would have done in a second.

Even though I'm a software guy with no intention of exploring mechanical design, I now look back on PoE as one of the most useful classes I've taken. First and foremost, it's incredibly valuable to understand all aspects of the engineering design process. In fact, that's a huge part of Olin's mission -- that's why every Olin student gets a little exposure to circuits, a little exposure to biology, a little exposure to software, and a little epxposure to everything else. Personally, I'm interested in getting a little more than just a little taste, and having the opportunity to design a mechanical system like this was immensely valuable. (This is the same reason I'm taking Electrical Engineering Prototyping this semester -- I have no real intuition for how to design an electrical system, so I figure, jump in head-first and see what happens. And I'm learning a heck of a lot.)

More than that, it's incredibly validating to know that you can sign up for a task for which you have no formal training and no intuition, and create something that works. Olin is great at teaching you how to find out the information you need when you need it, which is great for people like me who like to figure out how to design things outside of their comfort zone. Needless to say, I'm incredibly proud of myself and of my team for figuring out how to take this difficult problem, and make it work.

Mischief managed.

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