EdusalsaDiscover Your Stanford
  • Posted 7 years ago


Side Projects

Dive into building stuff.

By Jonathan Renslo

As I’m coming to the end of my undergrad engineering experience, I find myself reflecting more and more on my time here. A number of freshman have asked me about what’s to come, what I would have done different, and other general advice for the future.

Without a doubt, my number one recommendation for an aspiring engineer, and I know it might sound obvious or vague, is to build stuff. And when I say build stuff, I mean all kinds of stuff. Figure out how the card scanners work, try to silence the annoying lady telling you to close the door, take apart a microwave, a radio, your computer (well, assuming you can put it back together), or anything you can get your hands on. At no other time will you be around so many people willing and able to build cool stuff, with access to the resources and mentors to help make your ideas reality.

One of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had here at Stanford was a project I worked on with a couple of friends - we wanted to build a go-kart. The problem was that we had no idea where to begin. Luckily my project mate had done a ton of research, poring over blogs and go-kart forums, and was able to get the ball rolling quickly. A few swift GIF-filled email blasts and a meeting in the d.School and we had recruited a sizable team.

As we began to make decisions about the design of the cart, it became clear quickly how many ways we could approach the problem. For example, we had a long discussion about how to treat the frame. Did we want to make models in CAD software, drawings, or just lay masking tape out on plywood and work from there? Did we want to use steel or aluminum? What shape would be best? The best but often hardest part of building projects is making choices to narrow your design space. Ultimately, we decided to attempt a drive-by-wire cart controlled with a bluetooth mobile phone connection.

Over many late nights and weekends of hard work, the vehicle started to take shape. The frame was welded and painted. We selected and ordered motors and drivetrain components. Our control board was prototyped, tested, and integrated with the software. We installed and tested our semi-custom manual brakes. We also had a lot of fun building our own rechargeable batteries! A lot of learning and a lot of fun. I also can’t emphasize enough how great the resources are for support on these kinds of projects. It took looking at times, but the TAs in the PRL, professors for technical classes, upperclassmen in engineering fields, and even many classmates helped tremendously by providing guidance and insight along the way.

A couple big takeaways we encountered throughout: organizing the schedules of Stanford students is harder than herding cats in the dark with tin cans tied to your ankles. We eventually settled on a weekly meeting where we would check-in and evaluate the status of each piece of the cart as it came together. We also learned the value of iteration. The first time you build something, be it a subsystem, a board, or a mechanical linkage, it gets done. The second time, you feel like you understand how it works, and it’s functional. The third time, you actually understand how it works, and it doesn’t break after you use it twice. One of our team’s greatest strengths was the willingness to dive right in and try processes and techniques we had only a bit of experience doing previously. OK, so you would probably want to check with a TA before firing up a MIG welder or milling machine, but don’t let a lack of experience keep you from trying something new! For us, sometimes, it took a couple tries, but by the end of the project, we had all grown tremendously as engineers and scientists.

So get out there and try to hack together a tesla coil, if that’s what you’ve been dreaming of lately. Try to build a reverse-osmosis desalination pod. Make a speaker, a table, a slackline, a tent, a frisbee, a bike trailer, an instrument, a book, a bacterial fermenter, a model skyscraper, a trash-collecting robot--It doesn’t matter so long as you’re making something. I can guarantee you won’t regret it.

In collaboration with Tau Beta Pi

Tau Beta Pi is the only honor society representing the entire engineering profession across the nation. Their chapter at Stanford strives to promote academic excellence, leadership, and continued service to the larger engineering community. They host events and organize initiatives including peer mentoring, K-12 outreach, alumni panels, CEO dinners, project fairs and more. For more info, check out

Jonathan Renslo

Jon ('16) is from Los Angeles, California. As an undergrad, he studied Mechanical Engineering: when he was not hitting the books, you could find him singing in the halls, cooking with buddies, or enjoying the great outdoors. He aspires to live simply and bring gaiety to those he meets along the way.

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