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MIT Better World

By Orna Feldman

Amid the high-powered, high-tech complexity that marks the MIT universe — where state-of-the-art bandwidths and arcane equations forge regular scientific breakthroughs — a decidedly different forge holds hot, but steady. It’s a place where the iron age intersects with the space age: Blacksmithing, it appears, is alive and well at the 21st-century bastion of math and science.

The art of bending molten metal returned to the Institute 16 years ago, when Materials Science and Engineering Professor Sam Allen, then a new aficionado of the craft, inaugurated the subject in a Freshman Advising Seminar. “I thought blacksmithing would be a fun way to introduce freshmen to the field (of materials science and engineering), which has a low visibility among pre-college students.

If students tried blacksmithing and thought it was neat, and at the same time learned science and engineering, it might hook them,” says the co-author of the ground-breaking textbook on the structure of materials.

Blacksmithing, he adds, offers an educational advantage that goes beyond taking measurements of a material’s strength and making observations through microscopes — the method he was taught as an undergraduate. “It’s not the same as feeling with your own senses and muscles. It’s not the same as being near a hot fire that reaches 1500 ºC. It’s a transition from book learning to tactile experience, which I feel is a very good way to learn.”

Aside from its pedagogic value and the intrinsic fascination it holds for him, blacksmithing also offers Allen an opportunity to mentor. The Freshman Advising Seminar, which is limited to eight advisees, is informal and self-paced, an atmosphere Allen finds appealing: “The quality of time with advisees is good,” he notes. “A really great thing to happen to an undergraduate is to have a close experience with a faculty member, who will serve as a role model. It’s great when this can happen on the first or second day the student walks through the door. Seminars help to ensure this happens.”
“It clicks into a creative and design impulse that nothing around here — not problem sets in physics nor chemistry – satisfies.”

The allure of hammering hot metal also holds sway in the “Technologies and Cultures” unit of the Integrated Studies Program (ISP), one of four alternative, freshman-year programs. Directed for the past 12 years by Arthur Steinberg, professor of anthropology and a MacVicar Teaching Fellow, ISP offers the satisfaction of hands-on metal work to 30 to 40 students a semester. “The experience gets them to think how technologies fit in the wider world and tries to get them to be a bit introspective,” says Steinberg, noting that “the most incongruous people get completely engaged by blacksmithing. No one has ever done it before. At first they’re very timid, but by week two they’re whaling away.”

As Steinberg explains it, the blacksmithing mystique involves “taking something that seems inert and hard and heating it up. It starts flowing and then you can beat it into many shapes. It requires absolute concentration, which is very MIT-ish; you cannot daydream while you’re doing it, otherwise you hurt yourself. And at the end, you’ve made something and that’s very satisfying,” he says, adding, “It clicks into a creative and design impulse that nothing around here — not problem sets in physics nor chemistry — satisfies.”

Once behind the anvil, a vast majority of the freshmen are eager to make knives and weapons, says Allen, musing that perhaps the students’ familiarity with Japanese samurai swords or the renowned Damascus steel accounts for this enchantment with weaponry. With a maximum of four students allowed to work in the forge at any one session, and about 10 hours to explore the medium, there isn’t sufficient time to create swords, says metal forging instructor Toby Bashaw. Letter openers, ornate initials, flowers, napkin rings, bowls, bracelets, hooks, crosses, and even mezuzahs are among the items they actually beat into creation. “It’s fun to have all these students from different countries show me their designs and reveal what they have in their heads. I get all sorts of serendipitous looks at art from their ideas,” says Bashaw. “It’s a visual treat.”

For freshman Josh Ouellette, an aeronautics engineering student, blacksmithing’s thrill lies in pounding the metal and “going in a low-tech direction.” His current objet d’art is “two-thirds of a coat hanger. I didn’t know I was making one until it started looking like one, and then I ran out of metal,” he explains.

Mandy Smith,’04, echoes his sentiment as she itemizes the benefits of the ancient craft: “You get to play with fire and you get to be creative, and it’s hard to be creative in physics. I tried that, but the professors don’t like it when you’re creative on tests and there’s no room for creativity in math. Plus, it looked more fun than writing essays,” she says, adding that blacksmithing is “a good stress reliever. Very seldom do you get to hit things in college.”