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MIT Better World

By Michael Blanding

Today’s topic is “design for assembly,” and the objective seems simple enough: be the first to screw one piece of wood into another. But Wallace, wearing a striped referee shirt and his trademark Santa Claus beard, impishly explains the catch: while the pink team is using straightforward Phillips-head screws in boards with pre-drilled holes, the orange team has slot screws, the blue team has one of its boards glued upside down in a box, and the red team has its board glued upside down inside a box with eight different screws.

“Go!” shouts Wallace. The cheering is deafening as the students set to work—but it’s no contest. The pink team is done in a minute and a half, while red and blue are still working, frustrated, 7 minutes later. “So why do we care about design for assembly?” asks Wallace. But of course, the point has already been made.

Wallace has been driving that point home to students for more than 20 years with this legendary course. Designed to closely mimic a real-world product design experience, from concept generation to assembly and launch, it culminates in a high-energy event in Kresge Auditorium that typically attracts more than 1,000 spectators.

Chemical engineering professor Bradley Olsen ’03 may work with his students on a different—and less theatrical—scale, but the goals of 10.00 Molecule Builders are no less ambitious. The new class, which he debuted in Spring 2016, challenges first-year undergraduates to create their own devices using chemical reactions. “When students come to MIT, they always say they want to build something with their hands,” says Olsen. “It’s easy to imagine how you would do that with software or LEGOs or robots, but hard to envision at the molecular level. And yet, chemical reactions are the core of many devices.”

Olsen gave students the choice to engineer one of three projects—a small car powered by a fuel cell; an enzyme cocktail to create biofuel out of switchgrass; and a 3-D-printed microgel for medical applications. Outside of a few parameters, the details on how the students approached the projects were up to them. “It was a very steep learning curve,” says Rebecca Grekin ’19, who chose biofuels. “We had to figure out what switchgrass was made of, what kind of enzymes we needed to break it down, and how to turn those parts into glucose.”

Professor Bradley Olsen ’03, center, with Chung-Yueh Lin ’19 and Paige Omura ’17. Photo: Lillie Paquette
2.009 students Kendra Knittel ’17 and Jerome File ’17 design a prototype release mechanism for their self-deploying wheelchair umbrella. Photo: Dabin Choe ’16

“Students are always surprised when experiments don’t work well on the first try,” notes Olsen, “because in lab classes, they always do. Those failures mean that students have to take their time to figure out why.”

On one try, Grekin’s group used the wrong antibiotic, so the bacteria meant to produce the enzymes died; in another, the bacteria contaminated the experiment. Through perseverance, they finally produced trace amounts of glucose. And Grekin carried these lessons to her summer job in a biofuels lab in Brazil. “I was working with a master’s student, and I had more hands-on experience in some of the procedures than he did,” she says.

In 2.009, “Part of the mission is to build the attitude and motivation to take on challenges and be successful,” says Wallace. Each year, he introduces a different theme—this year it’s “Rough, Tough, and Messy”—and students brainstorm products to build within that category. “If you are smart and skilled, you have a good chance of solving a problem—but the important thing is figuring out which problem you want to spend your time on,” Wallace says. The student teams pitch six different ideas to a group of advisors that includes MechE faculty, teaching assistants, and mentors from industry. As the semester progresses, they gradually narrow their focus to one product and get a budget of $7,000 to design, build, and assemble it. Over two decades, Wallace’s students have designed everything from a rappelling device for caving, to a braille label maker, to a beer-keg dolly. The last two ideas, says Wallace, went on to become commercial products.

Inventing a marketable product, heady as that may feel, is beside the point, says Wallace. “First and foremost, we want students to get excited about the positive and important contributions they can make in society as technical innovators. Secondly, we want to provide them with the skills and knowledge that allow them to work effectively in teams—and those skills are just as applicable to research and many other types of activities.”

For Olsen’s part, he hopes to expand the very notion of what it means to be a product designer. “I hope they get excited about digging into design and build not just at the macro level or the digital level,” he says, “but also seeing the potential that exists at the microscopic level.”