Society of Women Engineers Fixes Lamps, Clothes, Jewelry and Bicycles

The UMass Lowell undergraduate chapter of the Society of Women Engineers hosted a repair cafe for the community. Image by Tory Wesnofske
Members of the Society of Women Engineers take apart a printer-copier at a Repair Cafe last month.

By Katharine Webster

Breanne Eriksen, a first-year plastics engineering major, didn’t take any sewing or shop classes at Hingham High School.

“I took art classes instead,” she says.

But as a member of the campus undergraduate chapter of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), she’s learning how to sew, repair furniture and more. That’s because SWE hosted a Repair Café for the campus and community last month. 

Amy Chan watches Angenie Pang pull a lamp apart at a training session for the SWE Repair Cafe at UMass Lowell Image by K. Webster
Amy Chan watches as Angenie Pang takes apart a lamp in preparation for the Repair Cafe.
With help from volunteer staff members and friends, the women students repaired jewelry, toys, small appliances, clothing and furniture in the Lawrence Lin MakerSpace on North Campus for a small but steady stream of clients. In the Pinanski parking lot right outside, they also repaired bicycles and taught people how to change tires and check the air pressure, oil levels and wiper fluid for their cars.

All the repair services were free, although under the international Repair Café model, people who needed parts were asked to pay for them if they could, so that the enterprise becomes self-sustaining. The SWE chapter got a startup grant from a university fund that supports sustainability efforts on campus, including reducing the amount of waste going into landfills.

While planning and hosting the cafe, the students learned a lot of useful skills themselves. When things got slow at the clothing repair station, Psychology Prof. Sarah Kuhn taught Eriksen and other students how to hand-sew and embroider patches for denim jackets, using colorful fabric scraps. At a pre-café workshop, Eriksen and a half-dozen other students learned how to safely take apart a microwave oven and a broken lamp, then diagnose and troubleshoot problems.

Breanne Eriksen learns how to sew patches at the UMass Lowell Repair Cafe Image by Tory Wesnofske
Breanne Eriksen learns how to embroider a patch at the sewing station.
“We learned that YouTube is fantastic for learning how to do a teardown,” Eriksen says. “And we learned that it’s important to figure out whether an appliance is worth fixing, or whether it’s cheaper to buy a new one.”

Veronica Brown, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and co-chair of SWE’s philanthropy committee, headed up the Repair Café effort, which took months of planning. She was mentored by co-chair Ashley Nguyen, a junior mechanical engineering major, and Linda Barrington, service-learning coordinator in the Francis College of Engineering.

“Learning how to plan an event from the ground up and running the café really improved my organizational skills,” Brown says.

Alexandra Van Overbeeke-Costello, a member of the RiverHawk Racing club on campus, checks the oil in a truck at the UMass Lowell Repair Cafe. Image by Tory Wesnofske
Alexandra Van Overbeeke-Costello, a member of the RiverHawk Racing club, checks fluid levels in a truck.
Last spring, Brown wrote a grant proposal to cover startup and parts costs. Barrington helped her figure out where to apply for money and walked her through the process step by step. The university’s Sustainable Engagement and Enrichment Development (SEED) Fund awarded the club $2,500 for tools, replacement parts and publicity.

“Honestly, seeing the process of writing a grant and what a professional document looks like – how to condense everything – has already helped me on lab reports,” Brown says.

On the day itself, she taught some other students how to use her sewing machine. Brown and her cousin are into cosplay: She makes the costumes, and her cousin makes the props.

Veronica Brown (center) helps out at the sewing table at UMass Lowell's Repair Cafe Image by Tory Wesnofske
Veronica Brown, center, says she learned a lot by organizing the Repair Cafe.
SWE will host another Repair Café in the spring, now that they know the drill. They’re working on their handywoman skills in more workshops with some of the volunteers – and hoping to draw in more community members by making the Repair Café a regular event.

“We’re really drawn to helping people and solving real-world problems,” says Hannah Bagley, a biomedical engineering major who headed up publicity for the Repair Café. “We’re trying to figure out what people in Lowell need.”