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The Dartmouth
April 14, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Let's Make Something: Spotlight on the Dartmouth Machine Shop

One writer talks to the MShop staff, interns and engineering students about their experiences in the MShop.

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Few outside the Thayer School of Engineering seem to know of the Machine Shop. I’ve been lucky enough to descend into the basement of Cummings Hall where the MShop resides several times as a student in ENGS21, “Introduction to Engineering.” 

Quite literally “underground,” the MShop is “a unique instructional workshop where problem-solving and teamwork skills are fostered through hands-on learning,” according to the MShop’s website. 

The MShop provides an array of tools, techniques and training to help students learn and use a variety of skills and machines, which includes saws, mills, lathes and 3D printers. 

Mechanical engineering major Sophie Goldberg ’25 has used the MShop for various engineering and design projects since she’s come to Dartmouth. 

“Before Dartmouth, I was interested in inventing and engineering but had not yet been exposed to the tools I needed to explore the technical details of most projects,” she said. “Access to the Machine Shop, including high-tech machines, amazingly supportive instructors and a welcoming environment, has changed the way I approach technical engineering projects.” 

Engineering major and MShop teaching assistant Eva Hymes ’25 enjoys the process of teaching students while also being a student herself, constantly learning new skills and building new things. Her work in the MShop and Couch lab involves “helping students brainstorm how to make their prototype designs.”

“A lot of students will come up with an idea, but they don’t know how to bring it to fruition yet,” she said.“Since I know where all the materials are, I love helping them take their ideas and making them in the lab.” 

Expanding access to students from all backgrounds has been part of the MShop’s mission, according to technical instructor Izzy Labombard. She runs Tools & Techniques, which is a series of training sessions for students, and works on the 3D print farms, amongst a bevy of other MShop duties.

She highlighted the importance of being cautious, but not too intimidated by the machines. 

“To be a master like [instructors] Joe [Poissant] and Danny [DeNauw], for example, both certified tool and die makers, you need so many years of experience to get to that level,” she said. “But I feel like you can also get there and be confident without needing to have that much experience.” 

According to Mingwei Zhou, who works with the 3D print farms, the wide variety of machines offers many chances for students to learn. 

“You can build anything you want. Even if you have a hard time on the mill or lathe, we have a 3D printer,” he said. 

Labombard is an advocate for empowering curious students to learn new skills in the machine shop while also ensuring safety. The balance between empowering and keeping students cautious about safety is sometimes difficult to strike, according to Labombard. 

“There are some students that could end up … overestimating their abilities and could end up hurting themselves, and that’s … the worst case possible, anybody getting hurt … we have to make sure that that never, ever happens,” she said. “But you also don’t want to put up all these barriers to people feeling comfortable getting on and using [the machines]. It is a balancing act [of] how do we remove barriers and still keep it safe?”

Lambombard said that TAs are crucial to the success of the MShop. She did not have access to TAs when she was learning how to use these tools and machines in technical college, and she appreciates how valuable they are at Dartmouth. 

”I think it’s really great that Dartmouth offers [support through TAs and instructors], because it's one of the easiest ways to lower that on-ramp and all those barriers to learning how to use tools … safely,” she said. 

Students come in with a range of technical experience. Labombard highlighted how the MShop aims to close the gap between more experienced and beginner students.

“We want everybody to use [the machines] … not just relying on the one person that knows how to do it in a group, so they just end up doing everything,” she said. “Then nobody else gets the chance to try. Trying to increase the accessibility to the tools is of paramount importance.”

However, Dartmouth’s D-Plan and quarter system can pose some challenges for both students and M-shop instructors, according to technical instructor Joe Poissant. 

“The biggest difficulty is compressing a lot of work into a ten week course,” he said. “The alarm bell that’s going off is that there are ten weeks to go from start to finish.” 

The pressure of a short term doesn’t stop students and the team from building connections. When asked about her favorite part of the MShop, Goldberg answered, “I have found the team to be supportive, engaging, and exceptionally kind. Their guidance and enthusiasm for teaching have made MShop work so rewarding.”

This sentiment is mutual, as Poissant said,“I have had nothing but the greatest associations with students and faculty, not just the aptitude, but the kindness I see,” he said.

The MShop has been a great asset in my experience as an ENGS 21 student. Having a team of experts to go to for advice on anything — from modeling a prototype in Solidworks, a 3D modeling software, determining prototype feasibility, working with the laser-cutter, programming the Arduinos, which are simple circuit boards to create interactive electronic projects and more — was absolutely invaluable for me in creating my group’s invention. 

Beyond ENGS 21, many other engineering courses take advantage of the MShop’s range of tools. Instructor Zhou and student Hymes both favor the 3D printer in their projects, while Goldberg says the lathe is her current favorite, using it for cutting, shaving, knurling, and drilling. For her class, ENGS 76, “Machine Engineering,” she used the lathe extensively to build a fully functioning rover.

“Although this certainly isn’t the flashiest or craziest tool in the MShop,” Goldberg said, “I’m fascinated by the construction of the machine itself and the way it combines electrical and mechanical systems.” 

Ultimately, the Dartmouth Machine Shop is a hidden gem on campus, offering a haven for students from all backgrounds to explore, create, learn, and collaborate. With a commitment to accessibility and dedicated guidance from passionate instructors, the MShop not only provides a diverse range of cutting-edge tools, but also cultivates a supportive environment as a vital hub for hands-on learning at Dartmouth. Next time you’re free, it might be time to stop by and make something new.