"D-Lab continues to have a huge influence on how I work and how I approach life."

By D-Lab alumna Maddie Hickman

Maddie Hickman (far right, center) with D-Lab founder and co-director Amy Smith (far left), D-Lab: Development students, and community members, Botswana, 2015.

Maddie working at the Rickshaw Bank, Guwahati, India.

Installing water bottle lightbulbs with Amy Smith (bottom) and Kofi Taha (sandal alove right!) in Ghana.

Welding the hand-cycle at APDK, Nairobi, Kenya.

Making charcoal with PEN, at Takoradi Technical Institute in Ghana.

Becoming a D-Lab groupie

I first experienced D-Lab in the D-Lab: Development course my sophomore year—back in 2008, when D-Lab was a single classroom in the basement of the Infinite, and the machine shop was hidden in the adjacent loading dock. Since then, D-Lab has grown impressively, and I’ve tried my best to become and stay a D-Lab groupie.

My time in D-Lab taught me a lot: how to weld and use a hacksaw, how to travel and make the most of new experiences, (how to gumboot dance), and how to design and fail and try again. D-Lab also showed me the value of project-based learning, and in doing work that is personally meaningful. 

Travels to Ghana, Kenya, and India

The trip to Ghana with Amy and D-Lab: Development was my first time traveling overseas, and I immediately fell in love with traveling, with people, and with D-Lab. After that, I took D-Lab: Cycle Ventures, and then Wheelchair Design in Developing Countries (now D-Lab: Mobility). I spent the summer working at the Association for the Physically Disabled of Kenya (APDK) in Nairobi with two other students, trying to integrate a petrol engine into a hand-cycle wheelchair. From there, I traveled to India to join D-Lab: Cycle Ventures instructor Gwyn Jones at the Rickshaw Bank in Guwahati, India, where we worked on bicycle rickshaws and a cargo bike. In my last year at MIT, I did my senior thesis with Gwyn, developing an electric assist for bicycle rickshaws in India. 

Co-founding an educational venture teaching hands-on learning

In my senior year, I joined up with a team of like-minded students to found the Practical Education Network (PEN), with the goal of sharing the “D-Lab-style” love of learning and tinkering through hands-on teaching. PEN hosts teacher training workshops, primarily in Ghana, to explore hands-on STEM activities that use low-cost, locally available materials. After graduating, I continued working with PEN for a year, traveling to teach in Ghana and Peru, and in Boston. 

Staying involved

Since graduating in 2011, I’ve been lucky enough to stay involved in D-Lab: I’ve done contract work and engineering for D-Lab: Health and the D-Lab Scale-Ups program, worked in the D-Lab workshop with shop manager Jack Whipple, built bicycle rickshaws, co-led a D-Lab: Development trip to Botswana with Amy in 2014, followed Amy to Ghana for a Creative Capacity Building training, taken D-Lab: Earth, and hung around the D-Lab workshop to learn and continue to work on new projects (a small-scale D-Lab Aquaponics system, and SurgiBox, most recently). 

Outside of D-Lab, I’ve followed a bit of a haphazard path since college: I taught high school physics in a "flipped classroom" for a year, biked cross-country teaching engineering/tinkering workshops, worked as an engineer for an astrophysics lab, and just started working full-time at Harvard in undergraduate engineering education—running part of a machine shop, helping students with their capstone projects, and supporting hands-on projects both in and out of the classroom. 

Continued influence of D-Lab

D-Lab continues to have a huge influence on how I work and how I approach life. It’s given me an ongoing community of friends and mentors to whom I regularly go for advice, and connected me to all sorts of interesting projects, inspiring people, and ongoing learning. Amy once told me that D-Lab has the tendency to “derail” students from traditional employment (sometimes to the chagrin of their parents); this has definitely been the case for me, in a way that I’m extremely thankful for. 

D-Lab has made me better at seeking out new experiences, better at hands-on design and engineering, and better at thinking intentionally about what I’m doing in the world—although I still haven’t quite figured that out!