Of 2×4’s and Duct Tape

This week’s theme is “your favorite class”, and Cherish and Fluxor and Chris have all weighed in with thoughts about electromagnetics, physics, and the teachers that teach them.

The professor certainly does contribute heavily to the overall class experience – I remember fondly the wacky English professor who taught Materials, who used to inform us what he was drinking while he graded our papers (red wine usually, peach schnapps once). He actually convinced my friend taking the class to propose to my sister. My friend asked jokingly if he should propose to me instead, being closer to the same age, and was informed that I was too smart for him. :) But I also remember nearly everything he taught us about materials, which came back to serve me well when I took my qualifying exams. I sent him a thank you note years later, because memories like that are worth recognizing.

Here I need to stop a moment and mention that I actually took six years to finish college – three years in community college, and three years in university. So I’ve taken a lot of classes. In fact, my major when I began community college (lo those many years ago, when I was young and clueless) was actually horticulture. I’ve come to appreciate over the years the value of the classes that I took that had nothing to do with engineering. How many people get to take a bunch of classes just because they sound interesting? Botany, accounting, creative writing… I am so glad I got to experience that breadth.

The favorite class I want to tell you about was called 3D Design. It was offered under Art, and was basically a sculpture class. We got to learn about principles of design from an aesthetic point of view. For instance, for one project we built chairs. Everyone brought in a chair (from Goodwill, the scrap yard, what have you) and tore it apart.

I loved the tearing apart. That should have told me something about my eventual career…

Then everyone got to choose eight pieces from the giant pile of chair parts. By the next week, we had to build a chair out of those eight pieces that not only looked good, but would be functional. That right there is a straight up engineering project. Although at the time I hadn’t taken Statics, and didn’t know anything about stress and strain, I still knew that triangle shapes were going to be much more stable than squares. Now if I took the class again, I could do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to analyze how much weight my design could hold, or I could even model it in CAD and do an FEA analysis. But at the time I just had my dad test out the chair I built, which he did with some trepidation. It creaked, but held.

The final project was to build a sculpture that was also a working phone. The sculpture had to be modeled after the style of a particular sculptor, of our choice. The phone was to be a torn-apart rotary phone, that we installed somehow in the finished sculpture. Art class? Mechatronics, more like it!

The main motivation for my choice of famous sculptor to style my project around was this: I did not want to build curvy things. I can’t sculpt bodies or figures, and spirals are just a pain to make. (Ah, little did I know that I would end up with a specialty of manufacturing… but already I was considering the difficulty of making the physical object.) So I chose a sculptor who was known for his geometric designs – squares, rectangles, a few circles. This I could handle.

This particular sculptor also built all of his sculptures from metal, mostly steel. So when I designed my final project, I just went out to my garage and took a look around. We had plenty of scrap metal, a few sheets of aluminum I could cut up with the bandsaw, and a couple square steel tubes. Perfect! Busily I set about chopping and cutting. I was particularly pleased that I chose to use aluminum for some of the pieces, because it was lighter than the steel the sculptor used. By the end of the week, I was ready to put it together. My dad is actually an expert welder, so I had him teach me how to weld.

Ah, now I discovered why the sculptor used steel. Aluminum is much trickier to weld, and requires a special mixture of gas.

But aluminum or not, I got it welded together, and then I set about working on the wiring to hook up the phone. Now I was doing this all in my garage at home, because that’s where all the tools were. But all the other students in class kept their project at school, because I doubt they had work space in their homes. So the professor started to get worried about me, because he couldn’t see any progress being made.

“So,” he inquired, “How is your project going? How are the 2x4s and duct tape working out for you?”

Confused, I replied. “Two by fours? What do you mean?”

“Well,” said my teacher, “the sculptor you chose works in metal, so students always use 2x4s and cover them with duct tape to make it look like metal.”

Ah. Clearly you haven’t met me yet. “I’m using metal.” I said.

You could have knocked over my teacher with a feather. “But,” he sputtered, “but, how did you put it together?”

Well, welding, clearly. How else do you put together metal? Looking back now, I understand why my parents and friends just chuckled when I announced I was switching to engineering. Everyone but me saw it coming a mile away. Clearly, a typical art student I was not.

So in summary, my favorite engineering class was actually an art class in community college. I am pleased to say that I got an A on that project, and and A in the class. I also have the distinct honor of being that professor’s very first student to ever build a project out of metal, and the first to use welding.

During the last class, the professor walked around and called each person’s phone with his cell phone. When my sculpture rang, I picked up and answered. “Hello? Hello?”

Oh, you are looking for two by fours and duct tape? Sorry, none here….

One response to “Of 2×4’s and Duct Tape”

  1. Tobias Franke

    If you are ready to use a FE-Analysis analysis, you must have had no run ins with the Department of Redundancy Department yet. :)