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Engineer Spends Summer on TV Set

Lindsey Nguyen ’10 on the set of Design Squad.

Lindsey Nguyen ’10 wads up a basketball team T-shirt and weighs it in her hand. She ponders: What would be the best and safest way to catapult the shirt into the upper seating sections during Connecticut Suns professional basketball games?

It’s a hot week in July, and Nguyen is racing against time. Her team of three women is competing against a team of three men to engineer the best solution for getting those T-shirts to fans in the cheap seats. A T-shirt slingshot? A modified air gun?

It’s a typical week for Nguyen, who was a participant this summer on Design Squad, an engineering reality show produced by WGBH television station, a PBS affiliate in Boston. The show’s six contestants—three male and three female college students—compete in different engineering-oriented challenges each week as the cameras gather footage of their teamwork and ingenuity. At the end of the week, each team (not always aligned by gender) puts its design to the test and clients participating in the show award points for the best engineering.

Nguyen ties her T-shirt to hold its balled form and tosses it to her teammate across the room. Not bad, her expression says, good cohesion and weight, but could be better. They get to work, all the while the cameras rolling.

“It needs to be heavy enough to fly through the air but light enough to be safe,” she comments. Dorothy Dickie, the Design Squad director, steps into the set to lead a mini-rehearsal of Nguyen’s T-shirt toss before re-shooting the scene.

The Design Squad set is in a warehouse in Woburn, Mass., sitting amid a quiet residential neighborhood. The show, which shot footage for its third season this summer, has become a popular program, appealing to teens and the college-aged as well as techno-geeks of all ages. Design Squad is part of the WGBH initiative called “Engineer Your Life,” which was launched in 2004 to extend the accessibility of engineering and inspire college-bound girls and women to explore the field.

Nguyen, an engineering major with a government minor, was selected for the show from among hundreds who auditioned last spring, including five of her classmates in the Picker Engineering Program. The third season, featuring Nguyen and her teammates from schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University and Duke University, will air nationally in fall 2009.

Nguyen demonstrates her team's successful animal water-rescue device from Design Squad challenge #2.

Now that it’s September, Nguyen is back at Smith, ensconced in engineering curricula and playing on the field hockey team. But her summer as a reality show contestant gave her a unique view of life on a television set.

“There are a lot of communication issues that you have to work out,” she said of the show, which typically gave the teams only two days to develop their solutions to engineering challenges. Most of that time was spent with the added pressure of cameras watching every move. “At Smith, of course, you get much more time to work on projects. Here, you have distractions, the director’s always around, and you kind of worry about your image.”

Other engineering challenges had Nguyen and her co-contestants constructing a water-transport device for injured animals in New Orleans; designing an athletic wheelchair that would enable a female paralympian to train alone for wheelchair games; and creating a pedal-powered rotisserie grill for Redbones Barbeque, a restaurant in Somerville, Mass.

At night, when they weren’t solving engineering riddles on the Design Squad set, it was time to relax. “We do typical things, hang out and watch movies,” said Nguyen in July. The six contestants shared a house on the MIT campus. “We talk about our projects some, fix dinner together.”

A Brockton native and the “elder” of the group—the only college junior among sophomores and first-years—Nguyen led the group on tours in the area, to Revere Beach, for example, and often acted as mediator when tempers flared. “There are some tensions off-camera,” she admits. “Some people work well together, others not so well. I try to just give everyone a lot of respect.”

Nguyen will never forget her summer on a TV set, she said. “Design Squad was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I got to make great friends, learn many new engineering skills in each challenge, and even got to travel! I am glad that I’m part of a show that inspires young kids by making engineering exciting.”

As for that slingshot T-shirt challenge back in July, it was “not as successful as the tests in the shop showed,” Nguyen reported recently. “Our design did not launch properly. But that’s the way it goes. Sometimes things just happen that you don’t plan for, and that’s part of engineering.”


9/12/08   Eric Sean Weld
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