Giving to Brown

For This Student, It's All In The Making

Ramya Mahalingam '14 with her advisor, Senior Lecturer Chris Bull ’79, Sc.M.’86, Ph.D. ’06. 

It’s not every high school girl who dreams of combining art, physics, and political philosophy. But Ramya Mahalingam ’14, born in Abu Dhabi to Indian parents and schooled in Dubai, has always had a clearer sense than most of what she wants: to use her scientific knowledge to make practical things, and her artistic sense to make them beautiful to use.

She also wanted a truly liberal education. Where else would she end up but at Brown? 

We know there’s an unmet demand for places where students can engage in project-based learning.
—Senior Lecturer Christopher Bull

“Here, I could take mechanical engineering along with a wide range of classes—and do industrial design classes at RISD on the side,” Ramya says. “That wasn’t a combination I could get anywhere else.”

Ramya is currently president of Brown’s chapter of Tau Beta Pi, a national engineering society, and is on track to get her degree in four years. She’s still following her own path: learning theory at Brown; and at RISD, turning ideas into concrete practice. It’s a dual life that Brown’s engineering students of the future won’t have to lead. The School of Engineering is planning an ambitious expansion that will include a new building on College Hill and transformed spaces in existing facilities, including a “makerspace” in Prince Lab.

“We know there’s an unmet demand for places where students can engage in project-based learning,” said Senior Lecturer Chris Bull ’79, Sc.M.’86, Ph.D. ’06, who is serving as advisor for Ramya's independent study project this semester. “These kinds of projects can be transformative learning experiences.”

Bull explains that when Prince Lab was built, in 1962, “the way we thought about teaching and the way we did research were different. We need to reshape the Lab so that it can play a much stronger role in our current and future teaching and research.” The new space will draw students from across disciplines and encourage collaboration and peer learning, he predicts; it’s being designed to be accessible to students with a range of skill levels.

Once completed, the space will include equipment ranging from laser cutters and 3D printers to oscilloscopes and function generators, with a support team to help new users. New engineering classes will link theory with making and design. It’s just one piece of the School of Engineering’s plan to build a world-leading program that keeps pace with technological change.

“Brown students are deeply engaged with many of the contemporary challenges the world faces, and engineering will play a major role in how these challenges will be addressed,” Bull added. “We hope to expand the opportunities for creativity at Brown and foster  interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving.”

Ramya has already designed prototypes for a configurable lamp, a toy that illustrates a principle of physics, and a handheld music synthesizer, all displaying a sensibility that ranks form, and how humans will experience these objects, as high as function. Her senior year will include a new tutoring program she is organizing and her plans for a spring “hackathon,” a competition to make a useful new object—the sort of concept made for makerspace. It’s not surprising, then, that she echoes her advisor’s enthusiasm for learning through doing.

“Hands-on experience and interactions with other designers are crucial to refining your ideas,” Ramya says, “and sometimes to even having an idea in the first place.”