Handmade Education

Photo: Tom Lindboe

One of the continuing joys of working on a magazine is the soulful satisfaction that results from beginning with nothing and ending with something. It starts as a collection of ideas—discussed, debated and fussed over—and then slowly, over a period of months, becomes an assembly, a gathering of words and images that presents as a whole, a sum of its parts. A thing.

Putting together a magazine is not, in the strictest sense of the phrase, a construction job, at least not the way it was before digital technology liberated us from X-Acto knives and wax-backed strips of paper placed just so on a layout board. That physical process isn’t missed by most of us who remember those days, but I am glad I had that experience of literally doing it by hand. 

That is more or less the same experience the folks at the Product Realization Lab offer today’s students, though in a strikingly different context. Just as it was helpful for a budding editor to know what was involved in the physical construction of a publication, prospective engineers benefit from an intimate familiarity with the tools and processes required to make a product. 

On page 58 in this issue, Sam Scott explores the inner sanctum of the PRL with its benevolent and knowing Jedi Master, David Beach. Beach has been there for more than  40 years, guiding students toward some exquisite combination of wizardry and wisdom. 

The story also unpacks the peculiar history of what would be an anachronism at many elite universities—essentially a machine shop—and the foresight that Stanford decision-makers had in enabling the PRL to flourish. Last year, more than 1,000 students took a course at the PRL. It has spawned innovators and innovations; right now, all around the world, some number of children born with clubfoot are wearing a lightweight, inexpensive plastic brace developed by a pair of Stanford students who built its prototypes in the PRL. 

Experiential education is a hot trend at the moment, but the benefits that extend from learning by doing were understood long ago by Beach and his collaborators. Even for students who won’t become engineers, having the opportunity to see and know what it takes to make a thing will be a valuable complement to their overall education.

And isn’t there something just plain cool about a place where students can get their hands dirty? In this age when we are surrounded by the virtual, what a tonic it is to read about a place that celebrates the physical. It doesn’t quite make me yearn for an X-Acto knife, but I wouldn’t mind having a go at a welding torch.


Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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