This past July, twenty-one local high school students took part in the Edgerton Center’s 10th Engineering Design Workshop (EDW), an open-ended, month-long endeavor. These students were tasked to build something, establish and fulfill a mission statement, adhere to a budget and, they hoped, remain un-zip-tied to the infamous Wall of Iteration.
Said Wall of Iteration is, in fact, the east-facing wall of Room 409, the Student Projects Lab, at the Edgerton Center. A graveyard of beginnings, the wall features an exploded scooter, half-finished laser-cut drums, the beginnings of an electric cello, all attached by zip ties to the wire mesh, floor to ceiling wall.
Edgerton Center Instructor Ed Moriarty ’76 and Cheetiri “Chee” Smith ’14 led the workshop with Moriarty bringing over 15 years of Edgerton Center experience to Smith’s refreshing young designer perspective. The two were accompanied by Jarrod Smith ’16, Justin Perez '18, Barry Wu '18 (Boston University), Jonathan Dietz ’73, John McGoldrick '73, various younger mentors from previous years, and two canine mentors, Rookie and Petey.
Band saws squealing, soldering irons smoldering
The daily scene was hectic: teams clustered around tables, calculations dominated the whiteboard, a band saw squealed, soldering irons smoldered. Moriarty bounced around the workshop, playing with ideas, offering honest advice or challenging students as the devil’s advocate. Occasional lessons would interrupt brainstorming or building sessions, but the classic “teaching” was kept to a minimum.
“The goal is not to teach them anything. It’s to allow them to have an idea, to share ideas with people. It’s to come up with a problem they are going to solve, or a gizmo they are going to build, and then for them to take a good stab at it, and learn along the way,” said Moriarty.
By the end of the first week, students grouped into four teams based on common interest: energy generation, radio-controlled (RC) tanks, music visualization, and gravity detection. Then, each team established their mission statement – a broad, malleable project goal that could be fulfilled in three weeks.
While sketches filled whiteboards and notebooks, students worked on the side of caution, hesitant to build a daring prototype or test out an outlandish idea. Failure was both unfamiliar and daunting to many students.
Narrowing down zillions of ideas to one
Teams also grappled with a flood of ideas for their projects. “The hardest part was agreeing on a single idea as a team because everyone had a different understanding of what the final design would look like,” said Sasha Nikolaeva, 17, Cambridge resident and member of team “Oscillating Chaos."
While ending up on the Wall remained a real possibility for many teams, failure soon lost its negative implication. The Wall served as a physical manifestation of past iterations, past stumbles, and while it motivated students to fulfill their project goal, it reminded students that iteration is an organic part of the design process.
“There is a lot of stuff in [the Edgerton Center] that students can look at and realize, ‘well that was stupid’, and laugh at. It’s hanging on a wall at MIT, and it’s a skateboard broken in half… What? Why?” said Moriarty. “The people who get to success know failure very well. We have got a lot of those hanging on a wall.”
Moving towards the final day
Teams eventually learned to welcome their stumbles, knowing that it could point the way to a more tried and tested outcome. Laughter replaced the hung heads that characterized the beginning of the month. The diminished fear of failure fueled progress, and, as the final deadline approached, shaped each team’s final design decisions.
On the last Thursday of July, four radically different projects sat complete in the Edgerton Center: a set of pressure-activated musical tiles; an RC tank modified with motion sensors and a rubber band gun; a kinetic water-powered chime; and a gravity-detecting ball. Each team presented their creation before a large group of parents, teachers and visiting international students.
After a month of chaotic problem-solving in Room 409, the four teams remained untacked from the Wall of Iteration. However, the many fiascos that littered each team’s design process proved to be the most exciting, beneficial, and memorable moments of July. It was in these moments of iteration and even failure where the twenty-one high school students truly developed as creators and thinkers. While their finished projects – eccentric amalgamations of engineering, art and design – gave prideful, tangible evidence to their hard work, the moments of failure that made up each project proved most powerful in shaping the student’s EDW experience.