D-Lab: Design = AWESOME

by Amy Christina Gouws

D-Lab: Design students and instructors. Spring 2018.

"Not only did we get time to practically apply the design concepts that were taught in class, but when doing so, the projects were real-world projects. This made our contribution tangible and not just a theoretical application.”

 

I joined the D-Lab: Design class for a hands-on design experience. I found it to be this and way more than I could ever expect. Not only did we get time to practically apply the design concepts that were taught in class, but when doing so, the projects were real-world projects. This made our contribution tangible and not just a “theoretical application.”

I am an exchange student from South Africa. By using the experience that I have in outside the US, it was interesting to see the reactions to many of the problems discussed in class. I am studying mechanical engineering at the University of Pretoria and am at MIT for a year. As part of the requirements for my home university, I had to take a design class. The D-Lab class concept intrigued me and so finding a class that met the requirement was fantastic!

The D-Lab: Design Voya Sol team.

 

I was part of the Voya Sol team that included me, Felipe Monsalve, Emily Tang, Elizabeth Bianchini, and Alaisha Alexander. We tackled the problem of designing a user interface for a solar box, in which solar panels power up USB ports for charging and power outlets. The group that we worked with was Voya Sol (the inspiration for our team name!), a start-up formed by two graduate students at MIT and Stanford, Prosper Nyovanie and Caroline Jo. The project is intended for residents of Zimbabwe that have little or no access to electricity in their area. In contrast to similar projects available in the market, this project wants to make the system expandable and will eventually aim to make the system a miniature electrical grid for the community.

 

 

Prosper Nyovanie (MIT Mechanical Engineering graduate student) of Voya Sol with an early prototype in Zimbabwe.

 

The design of an interface is not a typical design problem for the D-Lab: Design class as typically, more mechanical problems are found for this class. However, a basic interface was needed with LEDs and some signage. And, working in a community with limited literacy and a very different frame of reference to symbolic meanings was an interesting challenge. We had to consider what would relay the message of the indicators as effectively as possible. This led to an indication system incorporating basic phone symbols and LEDs indicating if something has been connected and the level of charge of both the internal and external batteries and the solar panels charging. Designing the interface included work with a laser cutter, vinyl cutter, lots and lots of glue, soldering, and Arduino work. Further work on this project would include testing the prototypes in the field and taking the box from a prototype to a more robust device. 

The prototypes.

 

This was a class where I was given the opportunity to work and play with the equipment that I had learned about not just for a personal project, but to advance an important goal for a social start-up seeking to increase electricity access in Zimbabwe. This proved to be a great learning experience and a fun class to be part of!

I thoroughly enjoyed my semester in the class and working with the instructors Sorin Grama, Jerome Arul, as well as with Teaching Assistant Pushpa Prabakar and D-Lab Workshop Manager Jack Whipple. They not only taught the class the theoretical knowledge of the subject matter and processes, but also filled the lessons with experience from their own projects, the lessons they had learned, and the challenges they had to overcome in the process. This practical knowledge was highly beneficial and not something that can be learned from a textbook!

D-Lab: Design Instructors Sorin Grama (center back), Jerome Arul (center front), Teaching Assistant Pushpa Prabakar (left) and D-Lab Workshop Manager Jack Whipple (right).