There’s a lot of broken stuff in the world. A lot of it ends up in landfills prematurely. What’s more, most of us can’t imagine opening up and inspecting a complicated electronic device, much less fixing it.
But that was not the case during an Independent Activities Period Saturday in January when about 40 people — grandfathers, granddaughters, parents, children, MIT students, staff, alumni and more — arrived at the Fixit Clinic held at the MIT Edgerton Center. Armed with their no-longer-working stuff — a circa 1989 Sony amplifier with a broken volume knob, a first generation iPod, a white electric fan, a toy fire engine, and a Revox CD player found at the Wellesley town dump — participants got straight to work.
Fixit volunteers, including Edgerton Center instructors Ed Moriarty and Tony Caloggero, evaluated the problem with the owners, and together, they took things apart and, in most cases, restored things to their former glory. In the process participants gained an understanding of how their products work.
“While the primary objective of Fixit Clinic is to demystify consumer technology and empower people to disassemble and repair their broken stuff, the secondary, somewhat surreptitious goal is to improve science and technology literacy in the population overall, so we can choose officials to make good policy decisions,” says Peter Mui ’82, who founded the Fixit Clinic in 2009.
Hailing from the San Francisco Bay Area, Mui is no stranger to creating vital communities. Seeing the lack of opportunity for people with interesting ideas to collaborate and turn those ideas into companies, Mui founded the MIT Entrepreneurs Club in 1987 and co-founded the MIT $100K Competition in 1990.
The Edgerton Center also plays a role in Mui’s life: Doc Edgerton served as Mui’s thesis advisor and, after graduation, Mui worked as a research assistant in Doc’s lab. “I learned many of the repair skills I apply at Fixit Clinic right in this lab from Doc and his longtime technician, the late Billy MacRoberts,” says Mui, “so it feels like both a homecoming of sorts to me and a way of honoring them to hold Fixit Clinics here.”
“I was delighted to see the lab filled with hackers of all ages having a great time,” said Edgerton Center Director Kim Vandiver, who witnessed the steady hum of activity. “I’m always pleased to have Peter Mui show us new ways to engage the public around engineering and technology,” Vandiver said.
Doug Ling SM ’87 of Wellesley, owner of the Revox CD player found at the town dump, came with his children Emma and Alex. Their minor triumph was fixing a small tabletop electric fan that spun intermittently. “The fan disk was stuck on pretty tight but I pried it off using a flat file. Once the disk was off I had Alex and Emma wash the disk and the fan shroud with detergent, while I cleaned the spindle entangled by hair and dirt. I found some lithium grease in the shop and re-lubricated the spindle. The fan is now as good as new. Alex and Emma were full of pride and excitement when they presented the refurbished fan to its owner. I hope that 10 years from now, they will be entering MIT, remembering fondly that Saturday of the Fixit Clinic as their first taste of the MIT experience,” wrote Ling in a follow-up email. As for Ling’s Revox CD player: a $120 purchase of a new transformer will restore the player back to musical glory.
Fixit volunteer Steven Shoap SM ’66 came with his 9-year-old granddaughter, Stephanie. While Shoap applied his technical expertise to stereo receivers, toy fire trucks and the like, Stephanie worked on assembling her own “Aurora Bearealis,” (a plexiglass polar bear in a box housing wires, battery and a three-color LED) a project Moriarty uses to teach basic electrical engineering skills to kids.
“This is life-changing for her,” Shoap said, referring to Stephanie’s excitement about her day at Fixit Clinic.
According to Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which presents awards to outstanding inventors and provides grants to teams of inventive high school students across the United States, “Learning that it’s OK to take a device apart and repair it is terrific training for being inventive. Once you get comfortable with how certain things work or what they do, you can repurpose devices and parts of devices to create something new whether for fun or to address a real-world problem. Parents should encourage their kids to take things apart and a safe learning environment like Fixit Clinic is a perfect way to jump-start your child’s inventive thinking and potential.”
Three Fixit Clinics have been held at MIT and 15 more, mostly around the San Francisco Bay Area. To learn about upcoming Fixit Clinics, join the Fixit Clinic Google group email list. You can also “like” Fixit Clinic at http://www.facebook.com/FixitClinic.
“I always try to think big,” says Mui, “and I see how Fixit Clinic could scale to be a vehicle for consumption change, environmental awareness, and social change, just through disassembling one broken thing at a time.”