It’s nearly 8pm, but there’s a palpable buzz in the Mechanical Engineering lab. A handful of students are huddled around Nicholas Tali and Helen Korley ‘20 who are working as fast as they can: soldering, cutting, bending and snipping cables – building an electrical amplifier, as the onlookers cheer on.
Nicholas wins, handily. Unsurprisingly, actually, he’s the Lab Manager, and after teaching students how to build sound amplifiers, he raced a student in building one. After sharing some pointers on Helen’s model, he moves on to another bench to work with another group of students.
“Once they learn to build stuff, and actually enjoy doing it, you don’t need to handhold them as much, they’ll figure out the rest on their own,” said Nicholas.
Nicholas started the optional Monday lab sessions, nicknamed the Makers Skills’ Lab to introduce students to practical engineering skills. Open to all students, the sessions are informal and hands-on, and students get to work on a range of projects from 3D-modeling and printing, to building electrical circuits.
“There’s a difference between learning how to do things in the classroom, and actually building and understanding how all the components come together to make them work,” explained Nicholas. “I found out that students sometimes struggle drawing links between theory and practice. So the Maker’s session acts as a gap-filler: teaching them to be hands on and actually building technical skills and solutions to everyday problems. It also helps them understand the engineering behind what they do.”
Growing up in a small village in the Volta Region of Ghana, Nicholas developed a curiosity for how things worked, and a longing to build gadgets. His technician-dad fuelled his interests, and together, they built miniature cars, boats and toys, mostly for fun. As a child, he looked forward to getting to the university where he believed he would learn to build actual gadgets and equipment.
“I grew up thinking when I got to the university, I would be able to build equipment for people in the village to improve their livelihood,” he said. “However, I got there, and was disappointed: we had limited access to tools and training to build the things we learned about in the classroom. While university is not necessarily about making cars and boats, it should be about teaching skills that will enable students to build what they want to. It is gaps like these that I hope to address.”
Currently, as Lab Manager at Ashesi, Nicholas oversees and conducts lab sessions primarily for the Engineering students. When he’s not running a scheduled class, he’s usually working with students on printing 3D-models, building circuits or trying to solve everyday problems with engineering.
“What drew me to Ashesi was the fact that I could impact more people, and change the way students are taught and how they learn, from theory to hands-on approach,” he said. “The world is looking for some of the solutions we are making here, and we can begin to create impact right from our labs. The Makers Skills Lab session is getting students to learn the basic skills that they need. I came out of school driven with a passion to train people in a hands-on way so I learned programming, electronics, embedded systems and anything else I needed to be able to build these solutions. Very few people may have the zeal or passion to learn on their own; some need a little shove. My goal is to give them that shove, so they can hopefully build solutions to impact their societies.”