New course engineers interest in sustainability

Professor Caitrin Lynch and Needham Community Council director, Sandy Robinson, table with Olin College’s ‘Dirt to Shirt’ students at the Winter Arts Festival. Photos by Laura Drinan

By Laura Drinan
Hometown Weekly Reporter

Seventeen students from Olin College of Engineering have spent the semester studying the lifecycle of clothing in Professor Caitrin Lynch’s new “Dirt to Shirt” course. The students, all in their first year of college, have learned to look at their clothes through a different lens and consider the future of the clothing industry’s global supply chain.

“The course talks about the global apparel industry, and we start with how the cotton is grown and how it’s produced, and then go to manufacturing, all the way to clothing after it’s been worn, used, and thrown away,” explained student Maya Calabria, whose interests lie in becoming a mechanical engineer.

 Members of the community take an interest in Olin College students’ classwork on bringing awareness to the global apparel industry’s wastefulness.

Members of the community take an interest in Olin College students’ classwork on bringing awareness to the global apparel industry’s wastefulness.

“We really look at the entire lifecycle of an article of clothing. So, it was sort of natural for us to then go to the Community Council because they have the thrift shop, which is something we did a huge unit on: thrifting, mending, and reusing.”

Earlier in the semester, the class took a field trip to the Needham Community Council thrift shop, where they saw how a piece of clothing’s life could continue, rather than be tossed in the garbage. Each student took home an item from the thrift shop and chose one aspect of it to be preserved in a resin block with a wood stand. The students also wrote stories speculating on the history of the article of clothing and created bags made from their thrifting finds.

In lieu of a final exam, the students took their resin blocks and stands, the small pouch, and the story of their article of clothing to the Needham Winter Arts Festival in Town Hall to sell their creations, with all of the proceeds going to the Community Center. The purchases, which were donation-based, also included a flash drive of the stories and an introduction to the project, as well as a sweet candy cane treat.

“What’s so cool about it is, other than the partnership with the Council, the fact that Olin offers so much more than engineering,” said Debbie Winnick, the Council’s Director of Development and Public Relations. “These students are just so creative.”

Although most students originally selected the course to fulfill their arts, humanities, and social science requirement, many of the students have become very passionate about reforming the industry.

“We’re trying to bring a little bit of awareness to this issue because, at least for myself, I knew nothing about how wasteful the global apparel industry is, how bad it is for the environment, and how morally questionable it actually is,” said Maya. “Taking this class really enlightened me a lot, and producing these projects really helped, so now we’re trying to inform the community.”

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