A maze of rooms stretches the length of the third floor of the N51, the weathered gray building that has long housed the MIT Museum. The rooms are more like a manipulator’s workshop than a scientist’s laboratory. There are woodworking equipment, metalworking equipment, hammers, wrenches, and dozens of boxes just for storing bike parts. Stoves line a window sill. Pots that cool food by evaporating a surrounding layer of damp sand occupy a hallway. Hanging from the ceiling, there is a floating bike that is suspended on four pontoons, so a rider would pedal just above the surface of the water. This is D-Lab.
Ask different D-Lab members what the D stands for, and you are likely to get a variety of answers. People often say “design” or “development”. At one point, the D was a placeholder for a complete sentence: “Development through dialogue, design, and dissemination.” Ta Corrales ’16 adds another D word to the list: “D-Lab derail students, “he says,” and that was me too.
Corrales was a freshman from Costa Rica when she discovered this eclectic enclave within MIT, where 26 staff members support 15 classes that teach MIT students how technological innovation can bring people together. Students, in turn, teach others in less developed areas how to build tools that will simplify their lives. D-Lab works in more than 25 countries on five continents to help raise living standards. At the end of his sophomore year, Corrales decided that instead of pursuing his first love, chemistry, he would make D-Lab work the foundation of his career.
Today, five years after graduating from MIT with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (and a major in chemistry), Corrales is a leader at the OAXIN Innovation Center, a nonprofit organization in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. OAXIN was founded in 2019 after 32 academic, non-profit and government partners, including D-Lab and MIT Enterprise Forum Mexico, collaborated to identify ways to strengthen the regional economy. Today, around 10 OAXIN members hold workshops in which locals and visiting MIT students design and build tools for Oaxacan use. Workshop participants say they leave feeling connected to their communities and empowered to solve technology problems. They often contribute to the local economy along the way.
At the beginning of a typical five-day workshop, 25 participants discuss the greatest needs of Oaxacans and vote for five to focus on. Participants can say that they want to prepare food more quickly, avoid inhaling smoke while cooking, or light their houses at night. After choosing which problems to tackle, Corrales guides the locals through a design process where they brainstorm technology ideas, build prototypes, see what works well and what needs improvement, and then repeat the process. Small groups of MIT students sometimes travel to Oaxaca to join, and those who prototype solutions often in the MIT lab.
“Ta Corrales showed us that for a community to be prosperous, it has to understand how to manage technology,” says Enoc Ramírez, a former workshop participant, through a text message translator.
Ramírez has enjoyed working with tools since he was a child, and has long built machines like agave grinders and lawn mowers. During his first workshop with Corrales in 2018, he learned a framework for researching design strategies, prototyping, and improving his designs, which made his job as an inventor and welder that much easier and more efficient. Now he runs workshops through OAXIN, in addition to fixing and creating tools in his business.
Recently, she helped a group of women speed up fish processing by helping them design a knife with an optimized blade to descale fish on one side and clean it on the other. He hopes that learning engineering and design skills in the workshops he and Corrales run will give Oaxacans more job opportunities and prevent young people, like his two sons, from needing to illegally immigrate to the United States, as he did one. time.
Corrales comes from a line of what she calls “women activists.” Her grandmother runs a cooperative that offers education and microcredits to women who want to start businesses in her hometown of Los Lagos, Costa Rica. When Corrales was growing up, his mother ran a school for children with learning disabilities who came from underserved communities. The name of Corrales comes from both. Her mother chose Tachmahal, which for her means “treasure” (and which her sister shortened to “Ta” when they were young). And her grandmother suggested her middle name, Marie, in honor of pioneering chemist Marie Curie. Corrales intended to follow in Curie’s footsteps as a chemist, but she also knew that she wanted to uphold the family tradition of promoting social justice.
Corrales didn’t see herself as an engineer when she started college. That changed in his sophomore year, during a D-Lab trip to Arusha, Tanzania. Farmers in the region were using a laborious process to separate plant seeds from their stems by hand, and Corrales helped them build a bicycle-powered thresher so they could process crops like corn and beans more quickly.
Growing up, Corrales avoided power tools, thinking they were for men only. But his time in Tanzania proved that he could, in fact, use tools as well as anyone else. “There is a change in self-perception that occurs when you realize that you are capable of inventing something,” she says.
Back at MIT, Corrales switched his major to engineering. She was only a few classes away from earning a chemistry degree, and the move meant an additional six months of school, but it felt good. He knew he had found his niche.
Corrales became a skilled engineer and soon found herself with the title of “Chief MacGyver.” D-Lab professor and associate director of academics Libby Hsu, MEng ’10, SM ’11, says she once saw Corrales lift a waterproof flashlight from materials dumped in one of the Mexican cities where they were working. “Everyone sees her as an incredible retoucher,” says Hsu.
Innovating with little money
Giacomo Zanello, associate professor at the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the UK, says there is a growing awareness of the value of simple innovations like the Corrales lantern. “You don’t have to go to the moon to be innovative,” he says, adding that having users of a technology direct the process, as D-Lab does, is catching on as a valuable way to motivate change.
In Oaxaca, Corrales has helped locals develop various inventions, including a press for a thin, crunchy tortilla called totopo that is made only in this region. Standard tortilla presses don’t press the dough thin enough to make tortilla chips, which have traditionally been stretched and shaped by hand. A custom press that Corrales helped create increased the premises’ production capacity substantially.
These days, Corrales is taking the inclusive spirit of D-Lab around the world through a company called Smith Assembly which he founded in the spring of 2020 with fellow engineer Liz Hunt. With this new venture, Corrales and Hunt offer team-building workshops for English-speaking companies. With the help of Smith Assembly, coworkers design and create art tools or projects in workshops similar to those run by Corrales in Oaxaca. For example, workshop participants can make traditional Oaxacan dolls in the shape of fantastic or mythical creatures.
During the covid-19 pandemic, Smith Assembly’s remote workshops have helped participants innovate using common materials such as pencils, cereal boxes, and prescription bottle caps. The company is building connections even between socially estranged coworkers.
Corrales has been living with his family in Costa Rica during the pandemic, but that doesn’t mean he has left Oaxaca behind. She and other OAXIN members have gone on to conduct pandemic-focused workshops remotely via text messages and WhatsApp audio segments. For example, many coastal communities in Oaxaca concentrate their food production on fishing, while relying on fruits and vegetables imported from other parts of Mexico. In the early days of the pandemic, vegetable supply chains were disrupted, leaving little to buy in city stores or village markets. OAXIN organized a WhatsApp-based workshop to teach people who knew little about gardening how to grow vegetables in their backyards.
“[Before the pandemic] If you had asked me if we could do this virtually, I would surely have said no, ”says Corrales. But in the true spirit of D-Lab, she and her collaborators innovated and found a way forward.
As vaccines become available, Corrales hopes to begin traveling and conducting Smith Assembly workshops in person, but for now, he is staying in Costa Rica and continuing to work online.
OAXIN has recently started a new project to help Oaxacans market traditional textiles by selling shawls through an online marketplace. As the Smith Assembly becomes more crowded, Corrales has shifted his efforts in Oaxaca from holding workshops to quantifying the effects those workshops have had on the daily lives and incomes of the participants. Two Oaxacan totopo producers agreed to act as in-depth case studies, and with the data collected, Corrales found that the presses save each totopo manufacturer two hours of work per day and increase production capacity by 50%.
It’s just one example of how technological innovation can bring people together to solve little everyday problems on the floor or in the kitchen.