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Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers: Design Engineer

7 minutes

(Describer) Title: When you think of engineering, what do you see? A woman works at a computer. Title: Can it also look like this? A laser cuts a shape she holds up.

(Describer) Title: How about this? She fits plastic pieces together to form a four-legged creature that moves. Title: Or even this? She works at a sewing machine.

(male narrator) This is Amanda Parkes. She's a design engineer with MIT's Tangible Media Lab.

(Amanda Parkes) Our group works on this vision called Tangible Bits, which is looking at how we can seamlessly move between the physical and digital worlds using computational power embedded into everyday objects or environments.

(narrator) Combining knowledge of design, mechanics, and electronics, Amanda researches and builds innovative products that bridge the gap between digital and physical. How do we create an experience for people that isn't just about the engineering, but it's thinking about the people or human side of human-computer interaction.

(narrator) Amanda and her colleagues have developed a 3D modeling system with kinetic memory--

(Describer) ...which formed the creature.

the ability to record and play back motion.

(Parkes) One thing I started thinking about with Topobo was this higher concept of what it's like to sculpt with motion, and we immediately formed the project around making it a teaching tool for kids.

(narrator) They've also designed a tool for landscape architects, using sand to form their designs and store them on a computer. Amanda's favorite research combines her love of fashion with a desire to discover how to generate power using the natural motion of the human body.

(Describer) She enters a building.

She designs and creates wearable electronics-- clothing made from fibers that can generate and store energy. This is the first prototype of a project called BodyScape, which will eventually end up being a piece of fabric that's actuated, so it will be able to change and hold shape.

(narrator) Amanda interweaves plastic with a wire-like substance called Nitinol that contracts when activated, just like our muscles.

(Parkes) There could be one state where it's here,

(Describer) She lays some across her leg.

another where it's like this.

(Describer) She walks down stairs outside, and reviews sketches with another woman.

(Parkes) You could expand the frame so it could accommodate a larger or smaller child.

(Describer) Alone:

(Parkes) When trying to understand the dynamics of interactivity, you really need to be out there understanding how people interact with each other-- being a social being, being part of a social world.

(Describer) In a kitchen...

Hey, Sam and Joe! Food!

(Parkes) We've got a California feast here. Fajitas coming.

(Describer) She sits at a computer in a home office.

Another way I hope my work will make a difference is with my very early startup company, Bodega Algae.

(narrator) Bodega is developing an efficient way to grow algae for use as a biofuel, while also incorporating it into landscape design.

(Parkes) It's like a curse to golf course owners. They're putting toxins and chemicals into the water to kill it. If we change the paradigm, with signage saying, "We're growing this as biofuel. "We're gonna, basically, power the clubhouse with the golf course from this pond."

(Describer) A golfer hits a ball. At home, she sits on a couch looking through a magazine.

(Parkes) As a design engineer, one of the most interesting parts of it is the versatility of what I get to do. So, really understanding that I don't have to be wed to one kind of engineering. I do everything from building up mechanical models on the computer, designing on the computer,

(Describer) She holds the creature.

designing physical forms, working in our machine shop, cutting the prototyping materials for this, as well as writing some computer code and designing the electronics.

[zapping]

(Describer) The laser cuts a shape.

I use the laser cutter a lot. It's basically a machine that works like an ink jet printer, but instead of printing, it cuts with a laser.

(Describer) A larger cutter sprays water.

Another machine we use is the water jet cutter, which works a lot like the laser cutter, but with this one you can cut large pieces of metal with high resolution, and this allows us to think in a bigger scale.

(Describer) Sitting by the sewing machine, she cuts fabric with shears.

I think the line between when I'm working and when I'm not is sometimes very blurred. I would still be creating, sewing, and designing in my free time-- I love it as my hobby. So the fact that my work overlaps with that doesn't make it seem like work that much.

(Describer) In a photo, she holds a long surfboard.

I grew up on the beach in California, so I surfed, played volleyball. I'm very active in various sports. I was a rower as an undergrad. It's also an important part-- keeping a healthy mentality about your body and your lifestyle.

(Describer) Two images of Amanda walking face each other. She walks toward a street.

When I was in high school, I always loved math and physics and science, and I also always loved art, and didn't understand how they overlapped until I got to undergrad. But I found this major called Product Design, which is part of the mechanical engineering department. There I understood that I could apply the aesthetics that I cared about, the creativity that I had sort of honed to a technical project. It was a lightning bolt moment for me when I realized this could be a profession. Something that is really crucial to my process here, as a researcher, is the help I get from undergraduates who are working with me.

(Describer) With a student...

You'll be both working on the solid works modeling of the structures that contain the electronics and motors, and engineering some of the simpler, "How do we translate rotational motion into linear motion?"

(Parkes) In terms of making a living,

(Describer) Alone:

you can make a great living. I get to travel frequently, go to conferences and art festivals and present papers and projects and work on exhibitions, and this allows me to meet other creative people both on the engineering and art side, as well as just having a lot of creative freedom inside of what I'm doing is just a really inspiring way to live.

(Describer) Kinetic pieces spell the name Topobo.

When you make something and it performs as expected, someone interacts with it, and you see enlightenment coming to them through the object, that's an incredible feeling, to know that someone's learned something through using the tool that you've created.

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Amanda Parkes reveals some of her latest engineering projects and helps us find out what it’s like to be a design engineer.

Media Details

Runtime: 7 minutes

Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 1
10 minutes
Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 2
6 minutes
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Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 3
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Episode 4
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Episode 5
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Episode 6
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Episode 7
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Episode 8
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Episode 9
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Grade Level: 9 - 12
Profiles Of Scientists And Engineers
Episode 10
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Grade Level: 9 - 12