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Mini-airplane workshop: A lesson on not giving up

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Tyler VanHelene and Rebekah Panaro working on their mini airplanes at the University of Massachusetts

On Saturday Nov. 9, the All-Campus Makerspace (AMS) at the University of Massachusetts hosted a DIY mini-airplane workshop.

The event came together after Shira Epstein, the faculty member overseeing the AMS, approached Joseph Larry—a senior chemical engineering major and the workshop’s leader—about doing a seminar on model airplanes. Larry’s an expert on the subject. He started researching model airplanes online when he was ten years old, and hasn’t stopped since.

The event started with Larry explaining some basics and showing how mini airplanes flew, followed by a presentation about airplane building 101.

“You will crash,” Larry warned more than once, emphasizing the importance of not giving up and trying again. Little did we know how true those words would become throughout the event.

I sat down next to Rebekah Panaro, a sophomore biology major, who, as I would witness over and over again, was not a quitter.

Panaro learned about the event by seeing posters around the Integrative Learning Center and was later reminded about it through email. The event seemed exciting to Panaro; it was a chance to learn something new and build something with her own hands.

“I’ve never built anything like this before,” Panaro said. “I’m super excited,” she added while we were waiting for the blueprints to arrive.

The Explorer

Attendees were given three models to choose from: The Explorer, The Scout, and The Tiny Trainer. The process seemed simple enough: tape together the blueprint pieces to a piece of foam, cut out the pieces, and glue them together.

Panaro had initially chosen to build the Explorer, a simple, yet cool-looking model. The only problem? The blueprints would take about 45 minutes to print out.

Others who had chosen the Explorer changed models, but Panaro stuck to her choice even when she was informed that it would take about another hour and half for them to print out.

“I’m not a quitter,” Panaro said when people suggested she change models.

The Tiny Trainer

Panaro ended up changing models after she was informed the it wouldn’t be possible for the blueprints to be printed out. Without letting on whether she was disappointed or not, she chose the Tiny Trainer, but her troubles were not over yet.

Panaro spent the next two hours attempting to make sense of the Trainer blueprints. Showing exceptional puzzle-solving skills, she managed to put together most of the blueprints. Unfortunately, the blueprints were badly designed, and it was impossible—even with Larry’s help—to put the pieces together.

Undeterred, Panaro decided to switch to the Scout.

The Scout

By this point the sun was beginning to set, and only two of the original attendees remained: Panaro and Tyler VanHelene, a freshman biology major. VanHelene, although not encountering as many bumps in the road as Panaro, had been working tirelessly on his mini airplane for almost five hours as well.

As Panaro started taping together the pieces of her third choice, both complained of being hungry. As it turned out, Panaro had only eaten two pieces of candy — thinking that the event would last a little over an hour. That’s when I made a silent commitment to myself, Panaro, and Van Helene: I would not leave the workshop until they did.

Panaro, once again showing no sign of wanting to give up, got her blueprints and quickly pieced them together and taped them to the foam. As she was cutting out her airplane piece, Panaro made a realization — she had gotten the wrong prints, and the body she was cutting was way smaller than it should’ve been. She closed her eyes for a slight second and then set on a search for the right prints.

But, even though Panaro’s will had no limits, the AMS open hours did. Panaro and Van Helene were offered a plastic container to safely store their airplane parts, so that they could come back and finish later.

Even though there were no finished airplanes that day, we walked out of the workshop with a lesson learned: you will crash, but you have to try again.

“I’ve been through dozens of crashes at this point, probably more. I don’t know if it’s in the hundreds yet. I almost say I hope so, for learning experience,” Larry had told me earlier.

“It is a learning experience to build and crash. You have to learn to live with “oh I made this mistake; how do I learn from it?” he added.

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