Machine shop: An underused by valuable resource

The persistent hum of a lathe, loud enough to make conversation difficult for those in any room, is barely audible outside of Harned 142.  Switch it off, and little can be heard at all—maybe the occasional crackling hum of a welder, or the squeal of a protesting screw.
The machine shop and accompanying wood shop, tucked away in the lower corridor of Harned Hall, rarely garner much attention from students at the University of Puget Sound.
Of course, this isn’t entirely unexpected. The University is firmly committed to a liberal arts curriculum, meaning anything that smacks of technical school is either well camouflaged or eliminated entirely. The school offers no in-house engineering degree, reducing the need for resources and narrowing the focus of the physics and math departments. It’s an atmosphere that prioritizes the undergraduate liberal arts tradition, which means teaching is prioritized, rather than research. Puget Sound even sold its law school to Seattle University under the tenure of President Susan Resnick Pierce, who ran the University from 1992-2003.
Despite any wider philosophical commitments, theory-based learning in the realm of the sciences is often incomplete without physical experimentation. The machine shop and wood shop provide a place for faculty and students to bring such experiments to life.
Equipped with a variety of tools and equipment, some of it inherited from the Boeing corporation, these two rooms have brought an eclectic collection of educational devices into the classroom. Marcus Legros, the Physics technician at Puget Sound, cited the importance of the shops in creating what he called “aids to visualize science.”
The value of such aids, said Legros, is “illustrating subtle phenomena with demonstration.”
Bob Peaslee, the school’s new science support engineer, staffs the office that straddles the dividing wall between the machine and wood shops.
Peaslee, a chemist who has worked on everything from the stealth bomber to custom cabinetry, helps professors and students with whatever they need to support science-based learning. This often includes sectioning instruments into cutaways, so students better understand what they are using to perform experiments in chemistry and biology.
“Sometimes when you have an instrument, it’s just a black box,” Peaslee said. Cutaways such as the NMR machine outside the chemistry department make the complicated and precise nature of expensive instruments easier to comprehend. Peaslee stressed that while the shop is resource for students, “it’s to support learning. We don’t build bookshelves for dorm rooms.”
Physics professor Alan Thorndike was responsible for the machining and construction of the school’s Antikythera mechanism, a replica of the ancient Greek clock which displayed celestial motion.
The methods for constructing the original artifact, incredible for its use of finely cut gears in an era where none were thought to exist, are still relatively unknown. However, building a replica required theoretical work by Puget Sound professor James Evans and Christian Carman, a visiting scholar, as well as extensive effort on Thorndike’s part to make their ideas a physical reality.
Thorndike estimates he has around one thousand hours invested in crafting the mechanism, and said “This all wouldn’t have been possible without the reconfiguration of the machine shop.” The machine shop came into its present location and configuration only after the construction of Harned Hall, which was completed in 2006. Thorndike was on the planning committee for the space, and said he “pushed hard for enlarging the machine shop capacity.”
Despite the obvious importance of the shop to the Physics department, Thorndike said that “the purpose of the shop is to provide support for all the sciences.”
“I think the science faculty as a whole are doing more experiments which utilize the shop,” he also said. The shop also serves a few other functions for the various science departments, such as instrument upkeep and repair.
Ultimately, the wood shop and machine shop can be of great help to individual students if they are committed to a science-based project. The shop has supported physics club endeavors ranging from basic jet engines to watermelon-chucking trebuchets, and Peaslee said that if students “have a project, we’ll help them out.”
Legros explained that while the school could likely buy many of the things the shop makes, there was educational and monetary value in what the shop offered.
“It’s about seeing real people do real things,” he said.