Hampshire College and a Maasai Rap Video

Earlier this spring I spent a day visiting Hampshire College (wiki), a small liberal arts college in Amherst, MA.

Hampshire is an interesting place, because every student designs their own degree program. There are foundation courses in the first year, then two years of study in an area of the student's choosing. Finally, in the third year, the student completes a big self-directed project, somewhat like a graduate thesis. Also, there's no grades, just student evaluations.

Yes, they do play a lot of frisbee.

But the most interesting thing there is the Lemelson Center for Design, part of their School for Interdisciplinary Arts. The Center is funded mostly by grants from the Lemelson Foundation, named for prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson.

The Center has great facilities, especially for metalworking, and especially for framebuilding and other bike-related work. The shop is unusually clean and well-organized, with lots of funky, shop-made tools. They have an Anvil Journeyman frame jig as well as a full set of reaming/tapping/facing tools. A course on bike frame construction is taught every fall. They are especially geared toward technological solutions for disabled people. Here's some student projects:


While observing the "Appropriate Technology in the Developing World" class, I saw some students brass brazing a bike cart based on the Community Bike Cart Design plans (by Aaron Wieler, a Hampshire grad). They were using Harris black flux, which actually seemed to work OK despite the high temperature, although I would've preferred Gasflux Type B blue flux.

So after returning to Richmond, I sent a few sticks of Gasflux C-04 and a little bottle of blue flux up to Hampshire. Today I got this email from the Appropriate Tech professor:
This morning I was searching online for a blue colored flux that I used several years ago and really liked. I couldn't find it. So it was really strange when I found your package outside my door several moments later, with a sample of blue flux, and instructions on where it was from. Are you a metal shop elf dressed up as a regular seeming guy?

The big story here is that I managed to seem like a regular guy.
But it also made my day to have helped the folks at the Lemelson Center.


The Lemelson Foundation also recently awarded a grant to KickStart, a non-profit that developed the MoneyMaker--a simple, affordable, effective pump for small-scale crop irrigation.

The MoneyMaker pumps were the focus of a fantastic 2002 Wired article, back when KickStart was called ApproTEC. That article made a big impact on your then-17-year-old narrator, because it was about practical ingenuity applied to problems in the developing world, and that kind of thing gets me all giddy.

But wait. It gets so much better. There now exists a rap video about the MoneyMaker (the pump, not a butt) by a Maasai rap artist named Mr. Ebbo, seen here very excited about something...possibly an irrigation pump:


The importance of a place like the Lemelson Center cannot be overemphasized.

It offers an entirely unique form of education. It breaks down traditional barriers between education in the arts, the business world, and the fab shop. Traditional educational structures tend to stifle this interdisciplinary learning, especially at the large universities that award most degrees (like mine).

It cultivates inventiveness. Moreover, it focuses inventive energy on the problems of groups that traditionally go overlooked: the disabled and the developing world.

From a business perspective, these markets may go untapped because at first the numbers look all wrong: the R&D and manufacturing costs appear too high relative to the size of the market. But the Lemelson Center can provide a vibrant think tank where good ideas can develop into marketable designs, and the Foundation can provide seed capital to get these designs distributed to the folks who need them, via a non-profit like KickStart. There are hundreds of similar problems waiting to be solved with a solution like the MoneyMaker.

This is one blogger who would hate to see a place as valuable as Lemelson disappear, even if I never study or work there.

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