Featured / Mosaic / March 8, 2017

Knox Engineering strives for practical skills

Sophomore Zach Gregory and senior Jeremy Rainey-Brown work together on a project during a Knox Engineering Club meeting. (Julian Blye/TKS)

Stationed in the basement of the physics wing of SMC, a group of students composed largely of physics majors discuss plans for their next project: a hydroponics system that would allow the growth of plants using free flowing water and without soil. The space has been transformed from a barely used place of storage to an area for work on projects with access to industrial grade machines and other resources.

Knox Engineering was created in Fall term, with meetings twice a week to discuss their various tasks. Currently, the members of the club are mainly working to increase the club’s presence on campus. Sophomores Will Parkinson and Peter Driscoll, who are co-presidents of the club, are hoping the club will begin to settle as the term progresses.

Both Parkinson and Driscoll have been working on projects informally during the school year, and figured that turning their work into an official club would enable them to receive funding and support for their projects. They mentioned that there was a lot of work to be done before the official creation, including creating a usable space, applying to receive funding, and getting support from faculty.

“The whole upper area was filled with equipment from the 1920s that nobody had looked at in decades,” Driscoll said. “They used to utilize these spaces for classes in the physics department more often. But that’s kind of been fading away so the professors are all very gung-ho about us coming down here and putting it back to use.”

Parkinson mentioned that, in addition to cleaning and continuing to update the shop during the meetings, the club also holds classes during its Saturday meetings. The classes are aimed at training members to use the different machines in the shop, and teaching ways to apply those skills in ways they can use in the future. The training sessions are designed around machines, from basics such as the tablesaw in the woodshop to the heavy duty CNC mill. Parkinson hopes to emphasize the applied aspect of engineering, and also hopes to have people from different departments give their input.

“Maybe a chemistry major joins and they know how to do something we don’t. So we kind of want to do crash courses on the important stuff that is needed for applied chemistry or computer science,” he said.

Driscoll feels that the club is focused on teaching practical skills to students, many of whom are part of the pre-engineering club at Knox. He noted that, while the program is good in quality, it doesn’t teach the students much about the practical skills to be used later in their lives. He figures that the experiences being brought in by other students will be an integral aspect of the club’s success.

“The beauty of it is that we’re teaching each other. A lot of kids are coming in with experience in certain things,” Driscoll said. “Then that person teaches a session and relays all the information they can, which is a huge benefit.”

While Assistant Professor of Biology Nick Gidmark doesn’t have an official role in the club, he helps whenever he can and makes himself available to answer any questions and to supervise machine use for people who are inexperienced.

Gidmark is also the owner of the 3D printer, laser cutter, and CNC mill which are often used by Knox Engineering as well as other students. He mentioned that, although he prefers to be present to teach students to use the machines initially, he doesn’t have a problem with letting experienced students use the machines independently.

“They’re all very self sufficient, so if they wanted to come in and use the machines when I wasn’t there I’d be fine with that,” Gidmark said. “I wouldn’t want them to start out using the machines when I wasn’t there, but one I’ve used it with them a few times I’m happy for them to use it by themselves.”

Gidmark noted that the 3D printer is especially useful for his anatomy courses, and is attracting attention from several other departments. He uses the printer to create models of different systems, including the artery system of the lungs, and then inner ear structure. He feels that the printer provides an opportunity for students to view a specific structure in a way they otherwise couldn’t.

Driscoll and Parkinson mentioned that, though it belongs to the physics club, they too have gotten a lot of use out of the 3D printer, and have been working on ways to perfect the process. While using the machine isn’t dangerous like some of the others in the shop, using the machine still takes a significant amount of training. So far, the club has made keychains with “KE” on them, for “Knox Engineering.” One of the affiliates, senior Danny Andreev, printed a lock system that secures one of the cabinets in the shop. The club intends to continue discovering new ways to use the 3D printer to perpetuate work on their projects.

“The hardest part is just modeling something, which even that is surprisingly simple,” Driscoll said. “I feel like once you have the design, there are certain things preset that we have figured out. And what’s what has been difficult.”

Parkinson considers the most challenging aspect of using the 3D printer to be the amount of settings available after the design is converted into instructions for the printer. He and other users of the printer have been improving through experiences and learning from each other’s mistakes.

While the club is in its beginning stages and is focused on gaining more of a presence on campus, Driscoll and Parkinson hope to continue to teach practical skills through their projects. They hope to attract more incoming freshman and speak with potential pre-engineering students about getting involved in the club and the program. They hope to increase the accessibility of the machines and the space while also preserving a sense of safety and responsibility through the training sessions held.

Sam Jacobson, Co-News Editor
Sam Jacobson is a junior majoring in philosophy and potentially minoring in creative writing or psychology. She started volunteer writing during spring term of her freshman year, and worked as a staff writer during her sophomore year.

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