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At One College, Women Engineers Help Reshape The Machine Shop03:58Download

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Dr. Daniela Faas, director of design and fabrication operations, in one of the fabrication rooms at Olin College. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)MoreCloseclosemore
Dr. Daniela Faas, director of design and fabrication operations, in one of the fabrication rooms at Olin College. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Only about 20 percent of undergraduate engineering degrees in this country go to women.

Olin College, a prestigious engineering college in Needham, is proud to be an outlier: Half its students are women.

The school, which also prides itself on offering classes that focus on project-based learning, recently sought to redesign a central part of its campus — and in doing so, sought perspectives from its female students.

The Machine Shop

The machine shop is a big deal at Olin. It's now a place where students cut their teeth at building their own projects. But it was once a daunting space to many students who had not grown up around shop.

Daniella Faas, director of design and fabrication operations at Olin, said she remembers being discouraged from using the machines in the shop and wants to make sure all students feel comfortable there.

"Engineering's so much about being able to produce something at the end, and we really haven't done that in the past," Faas says.

Faas' colleague, Aaron Hoover, is an associate professor of mechanical engineering and says the machine shop did not used to encourage students to build their own projects.

"So when Olin started out, we started out with a very traditional shop space where, as a student, you came in with a technical drawing that was defined to a certain specification, and you would either hand it off to have someone else make it for you, or, if you were lucky, you could make it yourself," he explained. "And that was actually kind of at odds, to a certain degree, with the anti-disciplinary or multidisciplinary culture that we have here."

In the machine shop at Olin College, junior Claire Kincaid uses a plasma cutter to inscribe a poem she's written for a friend on a sheet of metal. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
In the machine shop at Olin College, junior Claire Kincaid uses a plasma cutter to inscribe a poem she's written for a friend on a sheet of metal. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

In the welding shop, junior Claire Kincaid takes advantage of the shop's redesign.

"It's been so amazing," Kincaid says. "We got rid of our old laser cutter that didn't work so well. We have new equipment, new welding bays. I love welding, so I'm real happy about the welding bays. This room is generally so much nicer than it was."

Kincaid cuts a poem out of a piece of steel using a plasma torch. She has been working with metal her whole life. But others students have not.

One change to accommodate students new to building their own products: Hand tools are no longer strewn about.

Junior Sara Ballantyne says each tool has a place on a board now, along with a label saying what size it is and what it's called.

Racks for tools such as this one in the "green room" have been installed for improved organization and identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Racks for tools such as this one in the "green room" have been installed for improved organization and identification. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"If someone told me: 'Hey! Hand me a dead blow hammer' prior to this wall, I would have no idea what they were talking about and probably would have handed them a mallet," Ballantyne says. "And so when someone says: 'I need a 19-mm metric wrench,' you can say 'Oh, got it! Here you go,' just by grabbing it off the wall."

Ballantyne says women can bring a different approach to how some of the big machines are set up for students who might find them daunting.

"A big stereotype that can be true is women have a little bit more caution in the spaces, and so when they come in, they have a little bit more awareness of the people who are working around them," Ballantyne says. She adds that women are sometimes more observant of issues with their work spaces.

"Something I think personally, I, as a woman can bring to the table, is I can look around and say, 'that doesn't really seem correct to me,' " she says.

That focus on safety among some female students is something Jayce Chow observes, too.

Student "Ninjas" Sara Ballantyne and Jayce Chow walk past a drill press and a band saw which are among the basic tools students are initially trained to learn in the "green room" at Olin College. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Student "Ninjas" Sara Ballantyne and Jayce Chow walk past a drill press and a band saw which are among the basic tools students are initially trained to learn in the "green room" at Olin College. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

"The women in our shop do definitely tend to take fewer stupid risks, and then also, when you're training women versus training men, the women tend to actually pay a little bit more attention, I've found," Chow says. "The woman will still actually engage with the training, whereas the man might be trying to show off the skills that he already has."

Another redesign: Students teach other students now. So whoever wants to use the plasma torch to cut metal can go to Ballantyne.

"We've been able to see a transition from it being a bit more of a hardcore mechie- and like male-dominated space to a very open learning space for students here," Ballantyne says.

All kinds of students, Faas says.

"I don't think computer scientists necessarily should be afraid to walk into the shop and do cool stuff," Faas says.

And doing cool stuff is what Olin sees as an integral part of its educational experience.

This segment aired on November 6, 2017.

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Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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