Around the Studio: Adventures in Mentoring at MIT

by Emily Twaddell

Here in the United States, it is Columbus Day, when we are supposed to celebrate the excitement of exploration (and try not to think about what happened after the explorers landed). Perfect timing to share some images of our own explorations as mentors alongside MIT MechE seniors in two-double-oh-nine.


“Ideate. Model. Test”: the 2.009 mantra.

MIT’s 2.009 Product Engineering Processes is a popular course for senior mechanical engineering students. The semester-long course engages teams of 16–20 students who design and build working alpha prototypes of new products. The course provides experiences in need-finding, innovating, prototyping, and the business development cycle in a simulated but very realistic environment. Students learn about creativity, product design, and working within a budget, while they gain unifying engineering experience. They must exercise both creative and analytical thinking while solving engineering design problems. They also develop strategies to increase the likelihood of success and apply them to product development while working in large teams.


Juhan checks in with a fellow instructor prior to the build challenge, where teams raced human-powered vehicles they designed and built.

From an instructional and program/project management standpoint 2.009 is an enormous undertaking. This year there are eight teams, all benefiting from the guidance of not only the professors, but a number of instructors from a variety of disciplines, teaching assistants (mainly grad students), and mentors. This year, the mentor team includes three of Involution’s crew: designers Roger Zhu and Sarah Kaiser along with yours truly. Summer 2014 Invo Intern Amy Loomis is an instructor this year (she is the one who talked me into it!) as well as Invo Creative Director Juhan Sonin.


Emily Twaddell, Amy Loomis, and Sarah Kaiser at MIT Pappalardo Lab (about to put on safety goggles, really!)

2.009 mentors come from a variety of design backgrounds including product, mechanical, electrical, UI, robotics, medical, aero, optics, communications, and other design disciplines. Some are students themselves, others are veterans of decades in the workforce, which gives the MechE teams a broad range of voices and experience from which to draw. Mentors act as non-threatening advisors. We question, encourage, gently critique without slamming doors to creative thought. We don't grade students, nor do we advocate one idea or approach over another. We model a calm, supportive perspective while helping ground students in reality as they run their projects and teams.

Before signing on for the fall, I asked Roger Zhu, now in his third year as a mentor, about his experiences. Here is what he told me about it:

“I did the job for 2 yrs, the first year I was there simply to observe and learn, and the second year I had a bit more knowledge of the course and I participated more, include teaching a tutorial. My personal experience is that sometimes I feel great being able to help, sometimes I feel amazed by the work the students produce, sometimes I feel I am not helping whatsoever. Depends on different stage of the class, the design can contribute differently, the beginning of the class is where the design play a bigger role (ideation, concept sketches, etc), there is a period of time it's mostly technique development so I take a back seat, and by the end of the class, we can help them craft their presentations.”


Roger flashes his mentor badge and a smile at the 2013 final presentations.

As a first-year mentor, I do mostly observe, and I am sure I am learning far more than I will be able to teach these brilliant students. I am floored by not just their smarts, knowledge, and abundant prototyping skills, but by their leadership abilities, their commitment to support each other as people as well as co-learners, and their incredible work ethic. Every time I read another op-ed complaining about spoiled or unfocused millennials, I know that the author has never seen the likes of these 2.009 adventurers!


Topics: Blog