Machine learning

Students work on robotics in think[box]

$5 million estate commitment fuels hands-on learning experiences—like those recently featured on NBC Nightly News

When he arrived at Case Western Reserve University as a first-year student in 2019, Myles Smith had never used a machine shop.

Less than four years later, his manufacturing work was being featured on NBC Nightly News.

The national television news program highlighted Smith and his Humanitarian Design Corps colleagues for a motorized arm they crafted within CWRU’s Larry Sears and Sally Zlotnick Sears think[box]. The student organization’s work helped Cleveland photographer Aurelian Barber expand his reach—literally—by adding a motorized arm for a swiveling gimbal to Barber’s wheelchair. The attachment allows Barber, who has limited movement in his limbs’ muscles and joints due to arthrogryposis, to stabilize, position and reposition his camera at whatever angle his artistic eye desires.

It’s this kind of meaningful, hands-on experience for which Case Western Reserve is known—and that is being fueled by gifts by university supporters like Grant (CIT ‘66; GRS ‘68, engineering) and Dorrit Saviers. The couple recently made a $5 million estate commitment to Case Western Reserve for undergraduate experiential learning.

Grant Saviers
Grant Saviers

Like Smith, Grant Saviers arrived on campus never having used—or, in this case, never having seen—the resource that would define his career: a computer. Halfway through his first year, Saviers discovered Case Institute of Technology’s computing center and the Burroughs 220, a room-sized machine with tape drives and punch cards. He was encouraged to see what he could do with it.

Saviers went on to study computer engineering before it was even a degree, then led a successful career in computer storage systems, eventually retiring as chairman and CEO of Adeptec Inc.

”Giving people responsibility and letting them grow is something I practiced all throughout my career,” he explained. 

Now, he wants that experimental environment to flourish at his alma mater through resources like those available in Sears think[box], the university’s seven-story, 50,000-square-foot innovation center and makerspace.

”When you’ve got a hands-on creative space, ongoing funding is pretty important to maintain the best equipment,” Saviers noted, “so the strategy think[box] undertook was to get the best of various ‘maker’ technologies to have the students learn on and use.”

NBC Nightly News film crew interviewing students in think[box]

For students involved in developing the motorized arm for Barber’s wheelchair, this equipment was invaluable to enhancing their classroom education. They used top-of-the-line prototyping tools on the Prentke Romich Floor; high-tech metal- and wood-working shops on the Lubrizol Foundation and Kent H. Smith and Kelvin Smith Fabrication Floor for machining; and their team’s dedicated area within the Eric T. Nord Project Space Floor for collaboration.

“This project wouldn't even be possible without think[box],” said Smith, a mechanical and aerospace engineering major who noted Sears think[box] was a key reason he chose to attend Case Western Reserve.

“The design for manufacturability concept is heavily enforced in mechanical engineering courses, but actually being able to make the part is a great learning experience," continued Smith, who has a post-graduation position as a manufacturing engineer lined up at BWX Technologies this summer.

And, as the students often discover, this hands-on work can be life-changing—for them and for others.

“To be able to hear that we really changed someone’s life,” Grant Boone, a rising fourth-year mechanical and aerospace engineering student, said on NBC Nightly News, “that’s hugely gratifying for us.”

Originally published in the summer 2023 issue of Forward Thinking magazine