Active Intern: Nolan O’Connell and EXPLO an Innovative Match

The junior from Needham completed his second consecutive summer as a Design Intern for EXPLO Studios this August.
Norwood, Mass. Dave Hamilton remembers the first time he met Nolan O’Connell.

Nolan, a freshman at Catholic Memorial School at the timeappeared at a CM-hosted STEM reception. The CM Leadership Team had asked him to demonstrate the model of a robotic, 3-D printed hand that he developed himself in the school’s Innovation Lab.

Dave, in attendance to present the early-stages of CM’s EXPLO Critical Making curriculum that same evening, served as a representative between EXPLO Studio and CM in his role as EXPLO’s Creative Director. Responsible for developing hands-on, active-learning curriculum for the course, Mr. Hamilton also needed a student to run through the Critical Making curriculum before implementing it.

The freshman caught his attention immediately. The two spoke and Nolan continued to impress.

Nolan was the perfect match,” said Dave.

“The aptitude that Nolan had for the design thinking process and his ability to speak clearly about the challenges he had in the process really stuck out to me at the time.”

Two years after their meeting, Nolan, now a junior at CM, finishehis second consecutive summer serving as EXPLO’s Design Intern this August.

EXPLO, a nonprofit education innovator, designs curriculum made to invite students out of their comfort zone and into an active classroom. The non-profit develops projects not for independent practice. Rather, projects creatively titled “For All the Marbles” and “A World Without Squirrels” instill engaging, active learning through collaboration and discussion.

A recipient of the CM Arts Award for Outstanding Innovation, Nolan spent his past summer demonstrating a series of Critical Making projects for teachers across the region at EXPLO’s Critical Making Camp for Educators.

According to Mr. Hamilton, Nolan needed to demonstrate the overall challenge of each project and then present his thought process behind solving each one. From designing carrying systems for a T-Rex to optimizing sets of shape-systems for lamps, Nolan showcased the inquiry and tenacity taught to students who take the Critical Making course at CM, the only known course of its kind in the state of Massachusetts.

"At our camp for Educators, teachers run through a variety of EXPLO projects in order to understand the design process so they can implement more active project work in their own classrooms,” said Mr. Hamilton.

CM partnered with EXPLO Studio in 2017 to develop its Critical Making course for its 7th and 8th grade students. Nolan, a freshman at the time the partnership began, missed the first Critical Making course offered to the middle school’s 8th graders. However, he found a way to hone the innovative skillset that Mr. Hamilton found so appealing in CM’s Innovation Lab. There, his inquiry led him to testing out the different laser cutters and 3D printers at his disposal.

Soon enough, through trial-and-error, Nolan developed a high acumen for the technology around him. Classmates and faculty took notice and began asking him to assist on repairing and enhancing the tools at hand.

When the 3D printer in the Innovation Lab showed signs of wear-and-tear, the CM community turned to him, an underclassmen, to try and fix its filament.

“I was tasked with fixing it because nobody really knew how,” said Nolan.

“I didn’t know either. So, I had to work through the problem and figure out how the entire printer worked. And I did.”

Today, Nolan brings this fine-tuned mindset to EXPLO. While he laments what taking Critical Making might have been like in the 8th grade, Nolan takes solace knowing that his work with EXPLO refined the curriculum for those in the grades below him. He hopes that his work with EXPLO allows middle school students to fine-tune their own problem-solving skills before they enter the high school. That way, they possess the skillset needed to use more complex tools, such as those in the Innovation Lab, to tackle even more complex problems.

“I talk to kids in the middle school and I’m like, ‘What EXPLO project are you on,’ and they’re like, ‘This one,’ and I think to myself, ‘Oh I know that one, that one’s great,’” said Nolan.

“Seeing these people do the 10th iteration of this project after I had done the third iteration is something special.”

Before and between both summers, Nolan even saw his internship evolve into part-time job during the school year. For four hours each school week, Nolan arrived at EXPLO’s Norwood headquarters to test out their newest projects.

While the projects varied in difficulty, Nolan found a way to learn something new every day.

After all, Nolan, a member of the CM tennis team, drama club, and peer ministry program, never backs down from whatever project the EXPLO team puts in front of him. This past year, one project illustrates his tenacity well enough.

I set a pen on the table with it balanced on its tip. When I let go, it fell over,” said Mr. Hamilton.

I told Nolan I wanted him to design a solution using a 3-D printer so that the next time I set the pen down and let go, it would remain standing. I also told him that his solution had to print in less than 15 minutes.”

Within a few minutes, Nolan began the challenge.

“If you know anything about 3D printers, then you know that it’s very hard to come up with anything substantial within 15-minutes of a print time,” said Nolan.

Before he logged on to a computer and settled on a design, Nolan experimented with his hands. Using cardboard, he created a few iterations of his ideal pen holder.

“At first, I came up with this monstrosity that just didn’t balance [the pen] at all,” said Nolan.

“It was a cube that fanned out into a larger triangle that didn’t work. Then, I thought that maybe I could turn this into some sort of game that people could interact with. So, I did that and then moved on to the 3D printing part.”

After at least 10 iterations, Nolan developed a model strong enough to hold pens of varying weights and yet simple enough for a 3D printer to produce it in under 15 minutes.

To Mr. Hamilton’s amazement, Nolan’s model worked.

This school year, expect a similar outcome when Nolan creates his latest design in the Innovation Lab or at EXPLO. 

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Catholic Memorial, the Christian Brothers School of Boston, prepares boys for college, manhood and a world full of unknown challenges, ambiguity and complex problems and the importance of relationships.


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