The What, Who, and How of DUE: The Edgerton Center

By Anna Babbi Klein, Communications Manager, DUE

What Exactly is the Edgerton Center?Collage of Edgerton Programs

If you look at the long list of programs, classes, and initiatives that are part of the Edgerton Center, it seems like an unlikely collection. How does a class in high-speed imaging, a machine shop, classes on international development, and K-12 outreach fit together? The answer is quite simple. The unifying element is hands-on learning.

Since it was opened in the early nineties, the Edgerton Center has been based along Strobe Alley on the fourth floor of building four. This is where Professor “Doc” Edgerton conducted his pioneering work in strobe photography. It is also where he inspired and encouraged many students to translate theory into practice and learn by doing. In perpetuating Doc Edgerton’s legacy, mens et manus (mind and hand), is embodied in every aspect of the Edgerton Center.

What is "hands-on learning" at the Edgerton Center?

Courses for MIT Students –Directly Involving Students in Learning

Each year, the Edgerton Center offers 20-25 subjects for credit, many of which are 6-9 unit seminars. Courses range from Freshmen Advising Seminars to upper-level design classes to graduate workshops. As you read the course descriptions, it is clear that the focus is not on simply understanding concepts and theories but applying them.

  • SP.705J Electronics Project Laboratory:
    “Students build and keep an electronics kit, such as a radio, to serve as the vehicle for learning about electronics test and measurement equipment.”
  • SP.711 Electronics Fabrication & Design II:
    “Each student will design and fabricate a PCB, and will have the opportunity to build it into useful circuits.”
  • SP.757 Digital and Darkroom Imaging:
    “We'll use the darkrooms to develop film for scanning and chemical enlargement…also use the digital imaging facilities, which include scanners, Macintosh workstations, cameras and printers.”

    <view a full list of Edgerton courses>

In sustaining Doc Edgerton’s focus on high-speed imaging, one course which has been consistently offered is Strobe Project Laboratory. The Center maintains expertise in high-speed and scientific imaging as well as a large studio and state-of-art equipment that is available for use by both students and faculty.

D-Lab – Experiential Learning Focused on International Development

Amy Smith Teaching Water TestingAs part of the varied Edgerton course offerings, D-Lab is series of classes and field trips that engages students in a hands-on approach to international development. As Amy Smith, creator of D-Lab, described the program in 2004:

"I think we've worked out a pretty nice model, where we start by teaching about international development and appropriate technology and begin working with community partners in developing countries. Then we travel to work with these partners in the field, spending the Independent Activities Period implementing some of what we learned in the class, and identifying additional projects to work on back at MIT during the next semester.”

Since it began in the early 2000’s, the original three D-Lab classes, Development, Design, and Dissemination, have inspired a variety of new classes. The current D-Lab offering of ten classes includes Developing World Prosthetics, D-Lab: Information and Communication Technologies for Development, and Development Ventures: MIT Emerging Market Innovations Seminar. All the classes incorporate an underlying philosophy of working with local communities throughout the world to address their basic needs through small-scale, sustainable solutions. Fieldwork is an essential component of this approach.

Tish Scolnik discusses folding wheelchair with locals in TanzaniaThe resulting projects that come out of D-Lab classes give you a real sense of the ingenuity MIT students employ to solve real problems and make a difference. A few examples:

  • The Grease Project - Biodiesel retrofit for waste pickers in Sao Paulo, Brazil
  • Ambuzap - Portable low-cost defibrillator rechargeable through the ambulance's power
  • Prosthetics For All - Affordable Limb Augmentations (India)
  • Plastic Bag Recycling - A simple device to turn waste plastic bags into plastic yarn

    <view a full list of D-Lab projects>

International Development Initiative (IDI) - Encouraging Students to Make a Difference

D-Lab is one part of an overall focus on international development in the Edgerton Center known as the International Development Initiative (IDI). Through events, such as the International Development Fair and the Spring Showcase featuring student projects from D-Lab classes, IDI fosters student participation and builds awareness within the MIT community. At the same time, IDI programs and classes facilitate the hands-on engagement of students in all aspects of international development. Fundamental to IDI’s approach is close collaboration with the Public Service Center to promote and support student interest.

IDI Programs:

  • The Yunus Innovation Challenge enables students to develop solutions to a pressing need of the world’s poor through a variety of mechanisms including Public Service fellowship grants, the IDEAS competition and D-Lab.
  • The Technology Dissemination Fellowship supports the targeted dissemination and transfer of appropriate technologies developed at MIT.
  • The Visiting Practitioners Program brings community partners to MIT to interact with students as guest lecturers in classes, as consultants, and at informal gatherings.

Clubs and Teams – Learning Outside the Classroom

Back at MIT, the Edgerton Center is also home to 15 student clubs who take on the challenge of designing and building everything from a solar electric vehicle to an unmanned aerial vehicle. In many cases, a student team will go through a full engineering development cycle from idea generation, to design, to prototyping and finally to full implementation and testing. Ultimately, the designs are often put to the test in competitions throughout the world.

While the student clubs provide a fun and stimulating way for students to come together and pursue their common interests, they also provide a very real learning environment. Students learn to collaborate on a team, they encounter and solve design and engineering challenges, and they have a chance to experiment with innovative approaches. At the same time, these groups are self-directed and self-sustaining. Students develop leadership skills by taking on roles in project management, recruitment, and external fundraising. A few of the teams:

Student Machine Shop – Lathes, Saws and Presses – oh my!

One relatively unknown facet of the Edgerton Center is the Student Machine Shop located in building 44. As yet another contribution to hands-on learning, the shop will train any student to safely operate an extensive collection of machine tools and hand tools. Once trained, students use the shop to make plastic and metal “parts” for class projects, research projects, or personal projects and hobbies.

K-12 Educational Outreach – Getting Kids Excited about Math and Science

Students build an insect out of LEGO piecesWhile most of the Edgerton programs and classes facilitate experiential learning for MIT students, the Edgerton Center also engages younger students in grades K-12 in activities that are meant to raise their interest and curiosity in science and math. At the same time, these activities open a window into MIT and make STEM education and the Institute more accessible.

For upper elementary and middle-school kids, the Center now offers twelve on-site 1/2 day programs such as Flashlight Building, LEGO Chemistry, and Laser Mazes. Edgerton teaching staff also work with MIT faculty to create age appropriate activities that meet the K-12 outreach requirement in NSF or NIH research grants. While the Center welcomes students from any school district as well as home schools, the programs are aligned with the curriculum of the Cambridge public schools to maximize the local impact. In 2009-2010, 3,590 children came to the Edgerton Center, 766 from Cambridge.

The on-site programs use active learning techniques which students really enjoy and result in better retention. After participating in a program, an 8th grader from Gloucester wrote “Science wasn’t fun at all for me before, and now I know it can be.” The Center is currently translating the on-site programs into curriculum packages, with accompanying materials, that are made available to educators throughout the country. Check these out at

At the high school level, an Edgerton Center staff member has been developing an engineering track at the J.D. O’Bryant school. This is a work in progress, which began a number of years ago, and involves the creation of engineering classes at the school as well as more active-learning at Edgerton on Saturdays. MIT students and Edgerton staff also act as advisors to FIRST Robotics teams. The resulting collaboration increases the high school students’ understanding and appreciation of engineering and provides MIT students as tangible role models.

One measurable result of the Edgerton K-12 outreach effort: the number of Cambridge-based applicants to MIT has increased from zero in the mid-nineties to 8-14 applicants per year.

Who works in The Edgerton Center?

<view the Edgerton Center staff listing>

Professor J. Kim Vandiver, Director and Dean for Undergraduate Research
Jim Bales, Assistant Director
Sandra Lipnoski, Administrative Assistant
Steve Banzaert, Instructor and Advisor to Edgerton Clubs and Teams
Anthony Caloggero, Technical Instructor

K-12 Outreach
Amy Fitzgerald, Outreach Coordinator
Jessica Garrett, K-12 Project Coordinator
Amanda Gruhl, Instructor
Ed Moriarty, Instructor

International Development Initiative (IDI) and D-Lab
Laura Sampath, IDI Coordinator
Amy Smith, Senior Lecturer
Jose Gomez-Marquez, Instructor
Victor Grau Serrat, Instructor
Gwyn Jones, Instructor
Dennis Nagle, Lab Manager

Student Shop
Mark Belanger, Shop Manager

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