Monday, March 30, 2009

Peeking inside

The most male-dominated professions in this country are things my size would probably not make me good at: pipe fitters, diesel and heavy equipment mechanics, and that sort of thing. Mechanical engineering, though, is still very male-dominated, and about the only disadvantage I've encountered to being a woman in the profession is that it still surprises people. I don't look like people's image of a mechanical engineer. Many people ask how I chose mechanical engineering. This is part of that story.

I wasn't the curious child who took apart everything in sight to see what was inside. That part of me came later, after I grew out of being quite so timid. Mostly, I think it came after somebody told me I could.

A large part of discovering I could was a class called Engineering 25 that I took during my freshman year of college. It wasn't mechanical-engineering specific, but I think those were the parts I liked best. The class was run as an experiment, with two sections. One had all women. The other was mixed. I was in the mixed class. The idea, partly, was to see whether women learned engineering differently in the absence of men. I'm sure the results and findings were published somewhere, but I don't recall seeing them.

I learned both less engineering and more engineering in that class than in any other class I took. I learned less engineering in the sense that we did not focus on equations or mathematics or textbooks in that class. We did not resolve the motions of things that were rotating on other rotating things, or calculate energy or entropy or moments of inertia.

I learned more engineering in the sense that I learned to try things. I think I still have a screwdriver somewhere that I got in that class, and I learned how to use it there. I am sure I knew how to loosen a screw before, but it didn't usually occur to me to do so, or (even more importantly) that doing so might be educational and fun. No user serviceable parts inside, right? Somebody's going to get angry, right? No. Not at all.

We took apart all sorts of things in that class. We took one-cylinder Briggs & Stratton lawn mower engines down to their component parts and reassembled them so they worked. We took apart small things, like pens and staplers, on our own and observed the inner workings of toilets and things around the house. We took apart small appliances (mostly alreadey dead) in pairs. My partner and I got down to the gears in an electric toothbrush, even though we had to smash the plastic case with a hammer to get in. We took apart larger appliances in larger groups. Ours was a cast-off washing machine.

We even took apart a junker car (one for the whole class), even cutting the frame with a welding torch. Have you ever tried smashing a windshield? Windshields and the tempered glass they use for rear windows in cars smash differently, and they're hard to break. I'd really like to know if those little infomercial car safety hammers do anybody any good. It took me several tries with a real hammer that had some heft, and I wasn't stuck in a car seat.

We also designed our own simple wooden projects with dowels, planks, and wood screws. Mine was a custom back pack rack for when I came home from a wet bike ride. I still have it, but I don't still bike in the rain. We all learned to solder and assembled our own multimeters from a kit. (I still have mine and occasionally even still use it.) We toured a new housing construction site and a wastewater treatment plant. We even took water samples and made cultures to look at under the microscope. Mine had the most interesting microbes of anybody's water in the class. It wasn't from a toilet or from the rather stagnant "creek" that ran through campus. It was the drinking water that had spent a couple days in someone's bird cage down the hall in the dorms.

Ever since, I've made a habit of opening covers, taking stuff apart, and trying things whenever an opportunity presents itself. Sometimes I put things back together so they work; other times I give up because something is not worth fixing, but I try to learn a bit about what's inside before I toss it. I got our current vacuum cleaner off somebody's curb and reengaged an idler pulley that had ceased to turn the brush roll. I repack bike bearings and do other maintenance when my bike needs it. I replace faucets, doorknobs and things around the house. And I try to carry that attitude and everything I've learned with me to work and use it in my designs.

Much of this article and this article grew out of what I learned and the attitude that grew in that class.

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