Pat McAtamney Empowers Student-Led Engineering Teams

During the Open House for the Edgerton Center Clubs and team last fall, MIT Technical Instructor Pat McAtamney happily cooked up a bunch of hot dogs and burgers for a long line of hungry students outside his shop in Building N51. “They ate every single burger. I didn’t even get one,” he jokes. His continuous smile throughout the event emphasized his wholehearted commitment to guiding the Solar Electric Vehicle Team, Motorsports team, and other Edgerton Center teams in design and fabrication. Additionally, McAtamney oversees operations in the N51 garage’s machine shop.

McAtamney joined MIT in 2002 after working as a research machinist on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, space shuttle radar systems, and in the biomedical industry. He was a technical instructor in the Mechanical Engineering Department, teaching 2.008 (Design and Manufacturing II) for 11 years before taking on management of the Edgerton Center’s N51 Garage. But his dedication goes beyond the expectations of a shop manager.

A nurturing environment for all

The N51 Garage, also known as “Area 51,” is equipped with advanced tools such as CNC lathes and milling machines, an injection molding machine, and a water jet cutter — all of which enable teams to create nearly any part they need. The garage is filled with notes and memorabilia left behind to inspire current students.

When McAtamney first started managing the shop in 2013, he says, “There were hardly any women.” McAtamney made it a point to encourage female students to join teams and take on leadership positions. One of these students, Cheyenne Hua ’19, exclaims, “As a freshman, I had no idea how to do anything in the shop, and Pat took me under his wing and taught me how to turn a wheel hub on the lathe during IAP. He gave me confidence that I could hold my own in this world, being a city kid with almost no hands-on experience, and after that, my education really took off.”

Once women started taking on leadership positions, there was a snowball effect, and female membership increased to about 50%. McAtamney noticed that with more female captains, communication improved and teams performed better in competitions. “I think there’s a big correlation between more communication on the teams that have been brought on by female membership and the success of the teams,” he says. Most recently, the Solar Electric Vehicle Team won the American Solar Challenge two years in a row with a majority of women in leadership roles.

Inclusion has always been a part of McAtamney’s life. Growing up with four sisters, he recalls, “My parents were very strict with how my two brothers and I treated my sisters. You respected them. My sister Jo-Ann played street hockey with us. She was a year younger than me, but she’s playing street hockey with me and 10 of my friends, and if she wanted to play, she played.”

A culture of service and community

McAtamney manages to step out of the shop about twice a year to accompany students to competitions around the world, where students never cease to surprise him — in a positive way. “Don’t ever underestimate the MIT student. They’re always capable of surprising the heck out of you by doing something that you really didn’t think they were going to do,” he says.

The motorsports competition of 2018 particularly stands out in McAtamney’s memory as a time when the sportsmanship of his students amazed him.

Under Hua’s leadership, the motorsports team seemed to have won the race but was disqualified on a technicality when they exceeded the allowed power output by a small amount for a fraction of a second due to quickly pressing the gas at the start of the race. “In my mind, they won,” McAtamney says emotionally. He offered to take the students out for a consolation dinner instead of attending the awards ceremony, but the students insisted on attending the ceremony. Watching them congratulate the winning team despite their disappointment filled him with pride.

McAtamney states that team members often go out of their way to help other teams solve problems. “I’ve seen the battery lead for the MIT, either Solar Car or Motorsports, take off for the day and go help that team solve the problem. Or if we have spare parts that could fit one of their cars, they bring the parts over to that team and help them.” It’s no surprise that the Solar Car team has also won the sportsmanship award at several consecutive competitions.

Teams also give back to the surrounding communities. During the 2015 World Solar Challenge in the remote mining town of Coober Pedy, Australia, the Solar Car team came across a jewelry store and discovered that the store owner was struggling to get his 3D printer working. “What do you think happens in the store with an MIT student?” McAtamney asks. Students spent an hour fixing the printer and showing the shop owner how to use it.

The Socratic method

McAtamney’s teaching approach involves asking questions that lead students to find the answers themselves. His method aligns with Edgerton’s famous quote: “The trick to education is to not let them know they are learning something until it is too late.” By having students do everything themselves, MIT sets itself apart from many other institutions, where competition teams are directed by faculty and many parts are outsourced.

“It’s very easy for a student to come to me and say, hey, Pat, these two pieces are supposed to press together. And I measure them and they should press, but they’re not pressing. And I could tell them a solution. Well, you can take this one, throw it in the freezer, in five minutes, it’s going to press together. But you tell them, hey, just go research the thermal expansion of material. And if they struggle to a point, then I’ll sit there and discuss with them different things and kind of point them the way without actually saying: Put it in the darn freezer.”

McAtamney’s teaching style empowers students to solve complex problems on their own, preparing them for their careers as engineers. This high level of discipline is why companies like Tesla and SpaceX frequently visit the garage to recruit their next engineers. Hua now works at SpaceX and is one of many alumni who stay in regular contact with McAtamney.

“Pat was and is the backbone of the student teams,” she says. “But he doesn’t just run the shop, he really teaches us by letting us figure stuff out ourselves but is always there to guide. I would go so far as to say that what I learned from Pat is serving me just as well in my current structures engineering job at SpaceX as any of my coursework.”

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