This weekend marks the notable milestone where, for the first time in my life, I get to actually do cool engineering-y things with my actual hands for a research job.
I have a UROP (Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program), which means I get to have an on-campus job doing cool sciencey things and learning cooler sciencey things and getting paid for it. I’m currently working in the Space Systems Laboratory helping to develop a docking port for little satellites on the International Space Station for testing autonomous docking algorithms. The idea is that you want to develop and test these sorts of things in an environment where if your algorithm doesn’t work, an astronaut nearby can just pick it up and fix it (whereas if you were testing in Real Space, you would lose your tens of thousands of dollars of payload into the emptiness of space just because some idiot forgot a semicolon).
I spent the last month learning how to read circuit board schematics and getting firehosed about circuit theory and printed circuit boards in general. I’ve discovered that circuit boards are really cool and I’m learning tons about them from my UROP work. I applied to this UROP because I wanted to work in a Real Science Laboratory and do Real Science with my Real Hands, and that’s actually exactly what I’m getting with all the circuit boards I’m swimming in these days. You see, one of the things I want most to get out of freshman year is to develop hands-on experience. For some reason I never got into building things (like FIRST robotics or that sort of thing) in high school, which means that even though I really love working with my hands, my actual building experience is somewhere between “I can follow the IKEA instructions” and “let’s make a mousetrap car with cardboard and duct tape.” Still, my mom always told me I had clever fingers. She also told me I should become a surgeon. She stopped after I said I wanted to cut up rockets instead of people.
In any case, pursuing hands-on experiences in college led me to two extracurriculars: my UROP, which we’ve discussed, and the MIT Design/Build/Fly Team, which designs, builds, and flies remote control airplanes to fulfill missions for a national competition. Design/Build/Fly has been great–we’ve just finished test-flying two half-scale airplane designs and begun development of our final design. I can’t say much more than that just because it’s a competition and therefore kind of competitive, so the executive people are keeping things very hush-hush. Shhh.
But one of the things I learned to do in Design/Build/Fly was soldering. Soldering strikes me as kind of an insane thing to do. It’s like somebody said “we need a way to connect pieces of metal” and the solution they came up with was “let’s take a hot metal stick and melt a third piece of metal and glob that third piece of metal onto the first two pieces.” In any case, it’s kind of delicate and at the same time kind of badass, becase it means working with hot things and metal (which is a big improvement from working with duct tape and cardboard).
So when today my UROP graduate student mentor asked me to replace a motor in one of our prototypes and directed me towards the electronics room, it was with great satisfaction and ego that I sat down at a soldering station and started stripping wires to solder to the motor.
Let’s just say this–soldering is hard. De-soldering, the art of removing pieces of metal that have already been melted together, is even harder, because usually it’s impossible to get all of it out the tiny little holes that you need to put new wires through. That’s the story of how I learned to use a solder wick, which is a magical sort of solder-sponge that magically absorbs melted solder. Nevertheless, there was a lot of melted plastic on my motor by the time I’d finished soldering wires to it. When I emerged with my soldered blob of a motor and started installing it in the prototype, I was excited–no, expecting–to see it work and go home and call it a successful soldering day.
It didn’t work.
I was very sad.
I spent another fifteen minutes soldering wires to a new motor, because that old motor has seen too many things and has now been put in a retirement home where it can consult a therapist twice a week.
Fortunately with hands-on skills it really is a matter of practice makes perfect. That’s why it only took me fifteen minutes for the second motor (which, thank God, worked beautifully). And that’s why I’m doing this UROP, because I think it was the first time I was totally absorbed and focused and content with doing the work that I was doing. It’s hard to get that feeling (for me, at least) when I’m sitting behind a computer screen on a desk clicking buttons to do things. It’s things like soldering that make me realize why I’m pursuing an education here.