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Olin College of Engineering

Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Research
Student Work

Spring 2016

Redefining the Engineer: Ability, Textiles, and

Engineering at Home
Toni Saylor
Olin College of Engineering,

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Part of the Engineering Education Commons, and the Other Materials Science and Engineering

Recommended Citation
Saylor, Toni, "Redefining the Engineer: Ability, Textiles, and Engineering at Home" (2016). Clare Boothe Luce Undergraduate Research
Scholars. Paper 18.

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Redefining the Engineer
Ability, Textiles, and Engineering at Home

Author: Toni Saylor

BS Mechanical Engineering 17
Olin College of Engineering
1000 Olin Way
Needham, MA 02492

Research Project Advisers: Sara Hendren and Caitrin Lynch

Olin College of Engineering,
Introduction incompatibility of the built environment with
An engineer is defined as a person who their bodies.
has scientific training and who designs and Deaf Space is a different type of
builds complicated products, machines, intervention for Deafness. Rather than change
systems, or structures.1 This paper will the Deaf individual to fit the surrounding
explore a new definition of engineer environment, the Deaf Space principles of
engineer as anthropologist and critical thinker. architecture lay down guidelines for designing
an environment that fits the Deaf.3 Learning
Residence Hall 6 at Gallaudet University, an
Background American Deaf university, is the best example
As a Clare Boothe Luce scholar I worked on of Deaf Space architecture to date. The
three projects. For Sara Hendren I researched building features open sightlines for easy ASL
alternatives to traditional medical treatments communication, wider hallways and stairwells
of disabilities. For Caitrin Lynch I did field work so students can walk and sign simultaneously,
in a local, family-owned textile factory. As a as well as other innovations to fit the
joint project with both professors, I principles.4
participated in the planning and prototyping Cochlear implants are certainly a feat of
stage of science and engineering to be admired, but
there needs to be a greater attempt on the
Engineers as Anthropologists part of engineers to understand their user
In my research for Sara, I primarily focused group, and to consider adapting the
on comparing two innovative interventions for environment to the individual, and not the
Deafness: cochlear implants and Deaf Space at individual to the environment.
Gallaudet University.
The cochlear implant is an impressive Technicians as Engineers
technology that stimulates the cochlea Initially our fieldwork at the factory took
electrically to restore most hearing to Deaf the form of working 6:30-3:00 shifts, bouncing
individuals. Given that hundreds of thousands around from job to job in an effort to meet
of people around the world use cochlear everyone and write down everything. After
implants, it is shocking to most laymen to several weeks of that my research partner,
discover that in the Deaf community the Mary Martin (also a CBL scholar), and I had
implantation of cochlear implants is a noted potential, small projects around the
controversial and often rejected practice. To factory. We used a user-oriented design
many in the Deaf community, becoming a approach to narrow down to a particular
hearing person is not a goal or desire. In fact, machine that needed fixing. The machine had
many Deaf individuals believe they are not the most potential to damage fabric in its use,
disabled or hearing-impaired.2 They identify and because of efforts to avoid damage, was
with a different definition of disabilitythe the slowest part of the process.
After choosing a project, we began working tops of jars so she could spin the lid. She
with Bernie, a machine technician and jack-of- realized she could use tweezers and a pill
all-trades at the factory. As we cut and bent organizer to access her large collection of
metal, wired up electronic readouts, and earrings.
installed magnetic pickups, we realized just As Cindys high-tech Darth Vader hand
how much we, sophomore and junior (her words) sat in her closet, she used her own
engineering students, did not know about arsenal of smaller solutions to make her life
engineering that Bernie did. Bernie had never livable every day. Do we consider Cindy an
completed high school, but he knew how to engineer? She may not be designing machines,
machine better than us, how to design parts and she may not have scientific training, but
better than us, and even how to do math she did a better job designing solutions for
better than us. herself than trained engineers did for her. This
In the original definition of engineering, is not to say the high-tech hand has no place
Bernie does not fit. He does not have formal it certainly works for many. But it is an
scientific training, but he does everything else example of really cool engineering faltering in
an engineer supposedly doesnamely design practice. The majority of people who need a
and build machines. prosthetic cannot afford the high-tech hand,
and even if they can it takes months to arrive.
Engineers as Critical Thinkers
As part of my research for Engineering at Conclusion
Home, I spent a number of hours with Cindy. As engineers, we have to do both. We have
Cindy, a Wellesley retiree, lost both legs below to create the technologically advanced
the knee and some amounts of all of her myoelectric hand and the cochlear implants.
fingers following complications of a heart But we also have to begin to ask questions
attack. Although she had all of the feats of about where those products are going, who
engineering available to herincluding the can afford them, who wants them at all. The
much-touted myoelectric hand with fourteen definition of engineer needs to begin to
grip patternsCindy has developed her own encompass the acts of individuals doing
arsenal of unlikely solutions. By the time her engineering in little or big waystechnicians
myoelectric hand had arrived for her use, or suburban retirees. This is not to undervalue
Cindy had already adapted to her the engineering degree. Instead it is to slowly
environmentand adapted her environment push the envelope of what it means to be an
to her. engineer, until engineers are filling the current
Using incredibly low-cost solutions, Cindy gap between the engineering product and the
made possible what her OTs and prosthetists users use, until engineers are acting as
could not. She attached zip-ties to zippers and anthropologists and critical thinkers as well as
handles to make them movable by her. She trained scientists.
attached off-brand Command hooks to the
1. engineer. (n.d.). Unabridged. Retrieved July 06, 2016 from
2. Sparrow, R. (2005). Defending Deaf Culture: The Case of Cochlear Implants*. J Political
Philosophy Journal of Political Philosophy, 13(2), 135-152. doi:10.1111/j.1467-
9760.2005.00217.x. Retrieved July 06, 2016 from
3. What is DeafSpace? (n.d.). Gallaudet University. Retrieved July 06, 2016, from
4. Gallaudet University Residence Hall. (n.d.). LTL Architects. Retrieved July 06, 2016, from