When Helen Little was a student at Houston’s High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, she was actively involved in the school’s art and theater scene, creating sets and display pieces, working on teams to make end products that were both efficient and beautiful.
So, when she came to Rice, determined to be an engineer—she’s a senior chemical engineering major—she enrolled in ENGI 120, the freshman design course. In it, she felt right at home.
“With my background in the visual arts, I was able to translate those critical thinking skills and knowing where to start in building something, immediately,” she said. “It’s like I had a head start.”
That head start not only helped her as a freshman design team member, it also led her to become an intern for the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen as a rising sophomore, and later, a lab assistant there. Today, she is the head lab assistant at the OEDK, supervising the dozen lab assistants who work there, and working with the students who use the OEDK to help them keep their projects on track.
“This is a new position,” she said of her role at the OEDK. “As the Kitchen gets more and more users every year, we need more help. So, I coordinate among all the lab assistants and communicate with the OEDK staff.”
One of those student lab assistants is Jeremy Palmer, a sophomore mechanical engineering major. Being a member of Rice Eclipse and of a freshman design team meant that Palmer, like Little, spent a lot of hours in the OEDK. He, too, did a summer internship there and in his current position, is the assistant in charge of the 3-D printer.
“During the semesters I spent at the OEDK, I learned how a lot of the equipment worked,” he said. “And because I used the 3-D printer a lot, I also learned how to fix it when it didn’t work. That was part of what led me to this position.”
Palmer said the printer isn’t like some other pieces of equipment, where a checklist of what to do to use it—or how to troubleshoot—will suffice.
“You have to really learn it. And, I like to help people, so working with students who use the printer and helping them succeed is great.”
Amy Kavalewitz, the OEDK’s executive director, said the student lab assistants play a valuable role.
“The students are real assets. They’ve gone through training modules to use all the equipment and now they are sharing that information with other students. It shows we value our students in leadership roles. And our student leaders are also sounding boards for us. We rely on them to be a conduit between the OEDK users and the staff, to give us feedback.”
Both Little and Palmer said they spend a great deal of time in the Kitchen, not just in their duties as lab assistants, but also because it’s where they like to be. Little looks to pursue a career in prototype and product development, and Palmer wants to work in the aerospace industry. Both said their experiences working in the OEDK have helped them develop leadership skills.
“Going from an intern to a lab assistant showed me a leadership path,” said Palmer. “I’m hoping to take on different roles in the OEDK as I continue my studies at Rice.”
“Interacting with the teams who use the Kitchen helped me step back and look at the larger picture,” said Little. “You get to look at how people communicate with each other, how sometimes you need to reassess, and help people think differently. I’ve also been able to see that going forward, we need to hone our communication a little bit better, between the lab assistants and the Kitchen staff. Everyone here is so supportive, and we’re all invested in the end goal of making the space a great one for students.”
In reflecting on this newly created role, Little also said that working in the OEDK is an opportunity to help others feel at home in a space that can seem a bit intimidating from the outside, with its cacophony of power tools and the voices of team members excitedly working on projects. As a woman engineer and woman of color, she considers her role as a leader to be about not only the day-to-day of helping lab assistants and students, but also showing others what it’s possible to do.
“The OEDK's culture and community has influenced me a lot over the past few years. I similarly hope that I have influenced the OEDK with my different perspective, specifically in making it a more inclusive, collaborative, and successful space.”