September 11, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

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It was Aug. 21, the day before first-year students moved in, and the Bucknell University campus was enjoying a final peaceful summer day before the bustle of another academic year returned — save for a tiny corner across Route 15.

Inside the Bucknell Art Barn, 17 engineering students filled the air with a haze of sawdust and the screech of electric saws, drills and power sanders. They moved with purpose from station to station, concentrating in order to make each cut according to plans they devised that morning, and fashioned it all together to make a wooden toolbox — their first project in a week dedicated exclusively to building.

Held on campus Aug. 20–26, the first-ever Bucknell Fabrication Workshop (B-Fab) was a crash course in fabrication and prototyping aimed at making College of Engineering students better engineers and entrepreneurs. Professors Eric Kennedy, biomedical engineering; David Cipoletti, mechanical engineering; and Nate Siegel, mechanical engineering; challenged students to build a series of devices — from an Altoids-can flashlight to a miniature drag racer — while introducing a series of basic fabrication techniques such as woodworking, soldering, laser engraving, 3-D printing, composite molding and computer-aided design.

"These are pretty simple projects, but ultimately they're going to have to design things that are more complicated," Siegel said. "They're going to make drawings and send those to somebody else to build. The more they understand how things can be built using standard processes, the better off they're going to be later on."

Students building their practical design knowledge agreed that the process was empowering. "People assume engineers are doing this all of the time, but we're not," said B-Fab participant Delaney Charney '16. "We spend a lot more time writing plans and giving drafts to the people who do this, and this gives me a lot more confidence in designing for those people."

"I'm only a sophomore, and before this I felt I didn't have the necessary skill to make the things in my head possible," added Nikki Lazarus '17. "This gave me confidence to make something that I imagined into something that works."

Engineering students at Bucknell have access to advanced fabrication in the College of Engineering's Product Design Laboratory, but B-FAB intentionally focused on simpler tools students can access more easily and, in many cases, relatively cheaply. The organizers hoped those skills would enable students to be entrepreneurs, as well as engineers.

"When they have an idea, we want them to think of the simple things they can use to build a prototype, rather than feel they have to hand it off to a technician with years of experience and rely on that person," Kennedy said.

Funded by $1 million grant from the Kern Family Foundation, the program taught lessons in the early stages of launching a product alongside practical building skills.

"We want students to feel confident that they can build something, convince somebody else that they have a worthy idea, and take it forward," Kennedy said. "If they feel like they haven't established hands-on skills it holds them back in the design process, and they never act on their ideas."  

B-Fab included lessons about judging the market for a new product, thinking about how users will interact with it, and developing a rudimentary business plan. At the end of the week, students were asked to design and build a prototype for a consumer product of their choosing on a $50 budget. Sophomore Nikki Lazarus and junior Sydney Isaacs designed a piece of luggage with an enclosed garment steamer.

"You needed to throw out whatever you might have been thinking, because any idea was on the table," Isaacs said.

Working in pairs, the students raced through the design and prototyping phases in a mere two days. Other prototypes ranged from a brush with storage for hair accessories and a detachable mirror to a storage bin that folds into a chair — a dorm room storage solution — to a pedal accessory that makes any toilet seat self-lowering.

"Once we decided something, there was no second guessing," Lazarus said. "We just needed to go for it — try it out."

As part of the Kern Entrepreneurship Engineering Network (KEEN), Bucknell will continue to receive support for the program and other engineering and entrepreneurship initiatives for three years, and organizers are hoping to make B-Fab permanent, and possibly to expand it beyond the College of Engineering. They may also add shorter night or weekend building camps throughout the year, enhancing an already rich list of design activities that includes the KEEN Winter Interdisciplinary Design Experience, Bucknell Maker Spaces and the KEEN Design Challenges.

"We want them to keep making stuff, for extracurricular projects or even curricular projects," Cipoletti said. "Maybe they'll get a little more excited about their coursework, because it doesn't just have to be about designing something — they can make a prototype of their design and turn it into something real. It is empowering to be able to make something."