Fast Minds for Slow Tools

In a departure from the typical summer internship that an engineering student might seek, Julia Hartig didn’t choose a lab or a computer company in which to gain experience over her summer break. She chose a farm.

Julia, a mechanical engineering major and rising senior at Purdue University, arrived at Stone Barns Center in June to take part in the development of tools and systems catalyzed through our Slow Tools project. We launched the Slow Tools collaborative in 2011 with organic farmer Eliot Coleman and design engineer Barry Griffin to design, build and make available through open-source systems a host of new tools for small and midsize farmers.

“Most internships in mechanical engineering aren’t hands-on, and they’re not related to design,” says Julia of why she chose the Slow Tools internship. “What I’m working on this summer is basically like a senior design project in college. It’s almost exclusively about design and hand-building work. That’s what I was looking for—that and being outdoors.”

And she’s gotten plenty of both during her eight-week internship at Stone Barns Center. Working closely with Farmer Jack Algiere, one of the Slow Tools partners, Julia’s two main projects have been the design of a new bed-shaper tool for greenhouse use and improvements to the Stone Barns radiant compost system. On the latter, she’s made adjustments in the materials used and to the way heat is collected and transferred. With the bed-shaper, she’s using simple materials—lobster-trap wire, for instance—but is creating “a whole new vehicle” that can easily navigate a greenhouse’s tight spaces.

One of the benefits of having Julia onsite is the instant feedback she can get at the end of a day from Jack. Is this turning radius good? Is this material light-weight enough? And because her building experience was minimal, Facilities Manager John DiMarco lent a hand with welding and a Purdue engineering friend came up to the farm to help her trouble-shoot.

This is the first year that we’ve engaged engineering students in Slow Tools. While Julia has been at work at Stone Barns, two University of Maine engineering students have been focused on other design-build projects with Eliot Coleman at his farm in Maine.

Asked what she’s learned from a summer hanging out around farmers, Julia says: “It continually impresses me what a physical understanding farmers have of the way equipment works. They’re pretty mechanically oriented, for non-engineers.”

This fall, Julia, a native of Boulder, Colo., will return to Purdue. Her ideal work post-graduation would be in the public transportation or green-energy sectors.