It is not unusual for some undergraduate students to start the famously hands-on Course 2 program in mechanical engineering at MIT with little machine experience.
But not Spencer Wilson.
When he arrived at the steps of 77 Massachusetts Avenue in September of 2011, he already had well formed calluses on his hands.
Growing up in rural South Georgia, Wilson lived with his mother and father on a plot of land that was the aggregate of three separate properties, one of which had previously housed a fully functioning air conditioning factory. Wilson’s father is an architect and woodworker, his mother is a small business owner, and his backyard – which contained copious amounts of scrap metal and various piles of other scraps and parts – was a budding engineer’s goldmine. His house was in a constant state of flux and renovation, and his father had taught him how to use several tools that were none-so-unfamiliar by the time he saw them in lab as an undergraduate in MechE.
“I’m taking a manufacturing class right now, and the topics in the book are things my father taught me in simple terms when I was a kid,” says Wilson. “It’s interesting to see it now from a scientific point of view…. A lot of people discredit learning those ideas formally, but MIT does a really good job of taking something that’s typically informal and imparting it through formal training, taking something that’s often learned through apprenticeship and turning it into a class. Courses 2.007 and 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing I and II) are both great examples.”
Although he has little free time now, dedicating most of it to his studies, as a high school student, Wilson spent a lot of his time building science fair projects, helping his father renovate the house, and restoring a Volkswagen bus. One of his science projects was building a refrigerator that is cooled with heat; another was the development of an inflatable chair insert to help seniors or pregnant women rise out of their seat.
“There was always something to do,” says Wilson, “I was always occupied. I was focused on school and doing projects on the side. If I thought of something I wanted to do, my parents said, ‘OK, we have some huge aluminum triangles in the backyard that you can use as the frame.’ And I would just build it.”
These days, Wilson is still building on those projects. For his senior thesis, he’s working at MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, focusing on machine design and fabrication projects.
“I would love to do a project along the lines of what Professor Amos Winter did with his Leveraged Freedom Chair. I love the idea of building something that’s perfect in the US but that I know is going to break when I get it in the context of a developing community, and to be able to deal with that and fix it. That’s pure mechanical engineering.”