The host of PBS’s Design Squad show talks about his start-up, his degree from MIT, and getting kids interested in engineering.
What attracted you to an engineering career? The constant challenge of solving cool problems. I grew up building everything from hovercraft to rocket launchers, giant underground fort complexes (with electricity and linoleum flooring), and a 5-ft-tall Tesla coil. I’ve always loved building and learning about technology as I go, so pursuing engineering, especially at MIT, seemed like the perfect fit.
What is your typical work day like? First I answer e-mails and then start on design. My job changes a lot because our company is small, but most of the time I focus on either redesigning and updating existing mechanisms, or planning out the next innovation. While designing, my tool set varies widely. I’ll start with hand calculations and sketches, then move to CAD and sometimes modeling, all the way to wrenches and screws, putting together prototype parts of our system.
What kinds of things does your team work on? We do it all, although we are now less involved with the actual manufacturing and production of our system than we used to be. As we refine our existing system and work to launch our upcoming ascender, we work on many aspects of product design. We cover everything from the innovation of the new technology, to ergonomics, structure, system optimization, and design for manufacture. It’s great working in a small company, as we all get to experience the gamut of design engineering.
How many people do you work with? I have three colleagues and many advisers. The four of us are coinventors of the Ascender, and cofounders of the company. We work together on all aspects of the system, trading off tasks as our various specialties come into play.
What tasks do you most like to do? I love prototyping. Coming up with new and improved designs is a thrill like no other especially testing the latest revision, right at the moment of testing. Of course, as soon as you test, you think of a dozen other things you want to improve. Constantly learning and improving is rewarding. Possibly even more rewarding is hearing how my team’s work will make a difference for many people as they use the Atlas Ascender in their jobs.
What do you least like to do? Probably clean my office. A messy desk is a productive desk.
What traits and habits help you excel in engineering? Teamwork and passion. The sheer excitement my team and I get out of trying out a new design keeps us going full speed all the time. But to really make good use of our passion, we also have to have a lot of perseverance. I see that on Design Squad as the young engineers attack their challenges. The troubleshooting process can get daunting, especially when the stakes are high and you’re invested in a design. If you’re able to keep going through the frustration and learn something every time a project doesn’t work, you’ll be better equipped to solve all problems in the future. And persevering through a tough challenge makes the success all the more satisfying.
What advice would you give a young person interested in pursuing engineering? Dive in head first and do it! A great way to get started is with a program that supports early engineering education, like Odyssey of the Mind, Science Olympiad, FIRST Robotics, and the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Check out Design Squad to watch kids use engineering to solve real problems on PBS. But even more importantly, just start learning on your own. Engineering has created the world we live in, so it’s everywhere. Go ahead and take apart your bike to figure out how it works. As soon as you start learning, you’ll want to know more and if your parents get mad, send them my way.
Design Squad is a reality competition aimed at getting kids and people of all ages excited about engineering and the design process. In each episode Ball guides contestants as they take on challenges such as building cardboard furniture, hockey-net targets, and designing underwater prostheses for an amputee dancer. After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Ball cofounded Atlas Devices, maker of the Atlas Powered Rope Ascender, which lets military and rescue workers reverse-rappel up buildings at high speeds. The life-saving invention helped Ball earn the 2007 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.