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MIT Better World

By Deborah Halber

Any day of the week you can find students signing in on iPads, donning safety glasses, and getting to work making things. The fact that their work is also play is the idea behind Project Manus, an Institute-wide initiative to upgrade makerspaces on campus and foster maker communities, building on MIT’s long history of inventiveness and the maker spirit embodied by the aproned craftsman pictured on the Institute’s seal.

Heading up the project is “maker czar” Martin Culpepper SM ’97, PhD ’00, professor of mechanical engineering. In his Building 35 laboratory, Culpepper creates new precision machines for manufacturing and robotics. At home, he makes, among other things, gourmet meals and gadgets for his Ducati motorcycle.

He believes MIT students get their hands dirty to make a difference. “The vast majority of students come here knowing there’s a high probability they’ll be able to do something meaningful,” he says. “Taking something that exists in your head and making it pop up in the universe—that’s the first step toward having an impact.”

State-of-the-art facilities

All across campus, undergraduate and graduate students create with serious intent: researching new ways to deliver drugs to cells, for example, or to collect samples from deep within the Earth’s core. They design interactive music systems, build new economic modeling tools, and cast unusual components for buildings. Hands-on, project-centered curricula are part of the DNA of MIT and one reason the Institute has spawned so many imitators around the globe.

Beyond the classroom, students make things for fun, stress relief, or art—simply because they can. In 2015, Culpepper surveyed thousands of students about their personal approaches to making. Some of the responses surprised him: Men and women coveted access to hard-core machinery in equal numbers, and many students—in addition to writing code, building electric vehicles, and blowing glass— liked to cook gourmet meals.

Project Manus emerged to give students—many of whom were making things in their dorms or off campus—access to state-of-the-art facilities for whatever they want to make, and a nexus for like-minded people to come together to work on projects and solutions across different disciplines. In 2018, Alejandro Gonzalez-Placito, a senior studying art and product design in the MIT School of Architecture and Planning, saw a flyer about Project Manus. He ended up helping to build out the basement space that became The Deep. Growing up in Denver, he’d made both useful and frivolous things out of scraps from his dad’s woodshop. Now, he’s one of dozens of student mentors populating makerspaces around campus.

The makerspaces themselves are also many and various. For example, in addition to The Deep, there’s the Hobby Shop, a popular wood and metal shop in W31; ProtoWorks, an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that supports everything from software to projects in clay and foam; and the MIT Electronics Research Society (MITERS), a machine shop in N52 run by a dynamic community of students and alumni that has spawned such startups such as Kitty Hawk, which is developing flying cars. MakerWorkshop, a student-run makerspace, enables users to prototype new parts or devices, and MakerLodge in Building 6C is geared toward getting first-year students familiar with belt sanders, hand tools, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and computer-controlled machining. There’s the Huang-Hobbs BioMaker Space, where you could, among other things, develop photos on petri dishes using bacteria, and MIT Student Arts Studio, which cultivates and supports MIT arts-focused entrepreneurial projects and business teams.

Making things has been a core human endeavor since the creation of fire and stone tools, but it’s easy to lose sight of this history. Professor of History Anne E. C. McCants recalls speaking in class about the importance of the textile industry in medieval Europe or using the expression “dyed in the wool” and getting blank stares. “My students actually had no idea what I was talking about because the world of spinning wheels and raw materials was so foreign to them,” she says.

She started bringing raw, dyed, and carded wool and drop spindles to class for students to examine. For years, she taught a week-long Independent Activities Period class on spinning. She keeps a spinning wheel in her office and students regularly ask her to show them how to use it.

She’s also led informal classes on sourdough bread-making and medieval cooking. She joined with fellow historian Jeffrey Ravel, a professor who is currently the head of the History Section, to lead a class that built a handset printing press in the Hobby Shop. “I very strongly feel that you can’t actually understand economic history without having a sense of the tactile experience of the way people lived their lives,” she says.

Such tactile experience is at the heart of Project Manus. In The Deep, Gonzalez-Placito comes up with project kits to help students become familiar with the many tools of making in use today. “We don’t expect people to be very rigid and follow every rule step by step, but play around,” he says. “Making mistakes is part of this space.” He shows a visitor the “wall of learning”: a display of broken drill bits, failed vacuum molds, and gnarled green plastic spit out by the 3-D printer.

One student wanted to devise a drink dispenser for a dorm refrigerator; that ended up somewhere in the bowels of Building 37, Gonzalez-Placito recalls. Other projects— a motorized skateboard, a reinforced welded-steel truss for a building technology class, a prototype of a spill-proof breast pump attachment—have been more successful. Gonzalez- Placito says that for himself he’s made a 3-D-printed spoon that can be adjusted to any angle, an intricate spiral lamp, and a 3-D-printed Faberge-style egg on a stand.

Ngoc La ’21, a student in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, peers inside one of The Deep’s 3-D printers as a white rectangular structure takes shape. She is recreating an adapter for cameras and electronic components associated with Astrobee, a robot developed by NASA that supports astronaut-run experiments on the International Space Station. She estimates that she’s at The Deep most weekdays and likes the fact that it’s open after 5 pm.

Metal, wood, glass, stone, resin, plastic, leather—whatever medium students choose, Gonzalez-Placito helps them realize their vision. “It’s pretty awesome to just make sure that students feel empowered to come and make things,” he says. Once they become aware of The Deep, he says, “it sort of liberates them.”

Inspired by Doc Edgerton

The walls of a fourth-floor hallway known as Strobe Alley in Building 4 are lined with iconic images—the milk drop coronet, the bird in flight, the exploding apple. There’s a faint smoky odor, as if the ghost of inventor Harold E. “Doc” Edgerton SM ’27, ScD ’31 just fired off a stroboscope.

In the 1970s, when Edgerton’s electronic flash was transforming photography, Forbes Director of the Edgerton Center J. Kim Vandiver SM ’69, PhD ’75 was his student. Vandiver later worked alongside Edgerton on new ways to visualize the flow of air and water.

“There’s story after story after story of students coming to Edgerton and saying, ‘Hey, I’ve always wanted to build something,’” says Vandiver, professor of mechanical and ocean engineering. “And Doc would say, ‘There’s a workbench and a soldering iron. What are you waiting for?’”

At the time, shops in engineering departments were dedicated to class projects. After Edgerton died in 1990, Vandiver proposed turning his mentor’s lab of machine tools, drill presses, soldering irons, and oscilloscopes into a place where MIT students could invent or build stuff just for fun.

The Edgerton Center became one of the first independent makerspace at MIT, and its legacy continues. Peer mentors, staff, and alumni now offer help with engineering, coding, and more to MIT teams and clubs taking on ambitious international challenges such as designing autonomous racing vehicles and marine robotics. This year, a multidisciplinary MIT student team spent the summer designing and building a prototype for Space X’s annual Hyperloop Pod Competition—a challenge centered on propelling frictionless pods through a tube at 800 mph.

Building confidence

When Vandiver was growing up, he liked working with his hands. If he wanted to drive his dad’s vintage jeep, he had to help maintain it. He learned to tune it and replace the brakes. He built Heathkit electronics.

In central Iowa, Culpepper was the same kind of kid. He fixed everybody’s bikes and tinkered with machines he found in his grandfather’s junkyard. “If things broke, the only way they were going to get fixed was if you did it yourself,” he says. More recently, Culpepper’s creations have included a French-themed dinner, a mechanism for flushing brake fluid from his motorcycle, and laser-cut wall plaques he gave his teenaged kids as gifts.

Not everyone has spent as much time making stuff as Vandiver and Culpepper. Many MIT kids are more comfortable with hacking than hacksaws, and it’s not just students who suffer from maker anxiety. Culpepper recalled one time a faculty member and senior administrator balked at trying his hand in a makerspace. “If I said this person’s name, you’d be like, that’s crazy, but we see it at all levels. It’s human nature to not want to look like you’re not good at something.”

When you make stuff, you mess up. So, how do campus makers coax students out of their comfort zones?

Step one: free food. ProtoWorks at the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, MakerLodge, and other spaces lure students with pizza, coffee, granola bars, and ramen. (Mobius, a new mobile app, will let students check in real time which of more than 40 makerspaces are open and available, book spaces and machines, sign up for training, and pay for materials.)

Step two: eye candy. MIT students are very curious, Vandiver says. “If they see something cool, they’ll take the time to try to make it themselves.” Students in The Deep, for instance, can copy Gonzalez-Placito’s original design for a mold that makes ice in the likeness of Tim, MIT’s beaver mascot.

Step three: peer mentors. “One of the biggest strengths we have on campus is a culture of paying it back,” Culpepper says. “Among the student mentors, that’s worth way more than any army of 40- or 50-year-old grumpy people like me. “I want students to leave with the mind-set, ‘I’m going to have to make something eventually, and I’m going to be able to do that,’” he says. “You’re building a likelihood that they’ll hop on this kind of learning, whether it’s programming or machining. Making things is about solving complicated puzzles, working with other people, and challenging yourself.

“It changes you,” Culpepper says. “I would call it confidence.”

MIT founder William Barton Rogers’s view that science should fuel innovation and functionality was radical in the late 19th century; makerspaces are now ubiquitous in universities, public libraries, and even storefront studios in local communities. Provost Martin A. Schmidt SM ’83, PhD ’88, who in 2015 initiated Project Manus, believes “if you don’t know how things are made, then you’re severely limited in knowing how to make them better or how to make new types of things. These makerspaces ground people in an appreciation of what it takes to make something and helps them think creatively about how to make new things. We see this as an investment in the innovation ecosystem.”

Schmidt and others say it’s time for MIT to reclaim its place as the ultimate makers’ playground. Culpepper says, “It’s almost like MIT is this wonderland—a place in the world where students should feel that if they want to build almost anything, they can.”

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