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MIT’s ‘Area 51’ goes beyond theory for the ultimate in hands-on learning

MIT students <b>Kelly O’Brien </b>and <b>Orlando Ward </b>worked on a carbon-fiber wing for their team’s electric formula SAE race car.Matthew J. Lee /Globe Staff/Boston Globe

The Edgerton Center may pride itself on being among the most interesting places at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but it sure doesn’t look it from the street: A machine shop and garage for student projects, the center is tucked inside Building N51, one of those old, nondescript brick-and-concrete structures that dot the Cambridge campus.

But beyond the unassuming front, a maze of hallways leads to a workshop teeming with students who are making impressive scientific and personal advances.

Among the high-tech projects underway are a lightweight solar car that will race across the Australian desert in October and a planetary rover for a NASA-sponsored competition this summer. The students have aptly nicknamed the center Area 51.

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In one corner, a 1972 Opel is jacked up on a hydraulic lift; students are gutting the car and converting it to an electric vehicle. In another, a few guys are fussing over the brake system of an electric buggy that could hit 6o miles per hour in the Formula SAE electric-car race in Nebraska this June. Across the garage, a woman is welding the solar car’s body, the mold for its sleek carbon-fiber shell upturned on the floor.

“This project has been really humbling, but so personally rewarding,” said 27-year-old graduate student Kathleen Alexander, shouting over the buzz of an air compressor. “I’ve soldered solar cells, analyzed the aerodynamics of the body, learned how to weld — you figure out how to overcome obstacles you never encounter on the theoretical side.”

Team projects at the Edgerton Center are popular among students because they serve as trial-and-error crash courses in a variety of practical skills that might otherwise take months to learn. Don’t know how to assemble a car frame? Nothing a few snowy weeks locked in the garage with an arc welder can’t fix.

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For the NASA rover project, one student team is working to make the bot robust enough to withstand a punishing test course in Texas. Others are refining the software that controls its motors. Once in Texas, the rover will be operated remotely from Cambridge, via satellite.

“You learn by doing,” said Juan Romero, an 18-year-old freshman who just months into his tenure at MIT has become an integral part of the rover team.

“It’s one thing to sit in class, but it’s much more exciting to put it all together.”

Dan Adams