Will Hess

Will Hess headshot.
Bass Connections reminded me why I wanted to be an engineer in the first place and allowed me to be creative in my design work. It made me seek out more projects like it where sweat equity was appreciated and valued.  


Mechanical Engineering and Political Science ’23

Project Team

When I first arrived at Duke to study mechanical engineering, I really wanted to dive into manufacturing and design. But unlike some of my engineering peers, I also wanted to get my hands dirty. Concepts and books are amazing, but theory without practice is not as valuable. Taking a project fully from the page to fruition is what always motivated me. I hoped my classes would allow me to combine concepts and power tools, but alas, the majority of my them (with the exception of Engineering 101!) did not. By the end of my first year, I was really looking for what I needed and wanted as a mechanical engineer — a real-life project. 

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic compounded my frustration. Right after I enrolled at Duke, COVID-19 cases were climbing all over the world and lockdowns began. During the pandemic, I was sick of being trapped inside and taking online classes. While researching classes for sophomore year, I came across Bass Connections. When I found a project team focused on the intersection of engineering and energy, I jumped at the chance to have some hands-on experience with a multidisciplinary project.

Bass Connections served as watershed for me. My team set out to make a window that could grow algae and harvest it for a variety of uses. We started off with theoretical, nebulous concepts, and by the end of the year we had actually crafted a working 3D window! My time with my Bass Connections team was incredibly empowering. I had some skills, such as working with power tools, that many did not, but there were even more opportunities for me to learn from the other students on the team. 

Overall, my skill set provided real value to my team. Thanks to this, my confidence grew. When you come to Duke and major in engineering, you realize that everyone here is smart. I was no longer the most knowledgeable one in the room about everything. My confidence took a hit from its lofty high school heights. Bass Connections helped me find it again, but more importantly, Bass Connections helped me appreciate that everyone brings something different and useful to a project.  

In addition to increasing my self-esteem, Bass Connections allowed me to work on a project that incorporated everything from engineering to business. In our project, we even looked at marketing and which types of people might buy the windows we were making. Having the project scope include a wide variety of components really helped me to see how big the engineering industry is and how many factors need to be considered in applicable projects. The holistic approach I practiced with my team also helped me in future classes where more of these industry preparatory skills were included, such as this year’s senior mechanical design project.

Bass Connections allowed me to experience Duke at the hands-on and life-skills levels. My work through Bass Connections was fulfilling, sweaty and required me to solve problems I had never encountered before. Everyone knows projects always take more time than you expect, but having to make design changes, build new pieces and try to fit everything together is very difficult. Bass Connections was the perfect antidote to my many, many theoretical and textbook-based classes. In mechanical engineering, sophomore year doesn’t include a design class. I missed that aspect of engineering. Having only the math-heavy, subject-specific classes can be a soulless grind at times. Bass Connections reminded me why I wanted to be an engineer in the first place and allowed me to be creative in my design work. It made me seek out more projects like it where sweat equity was appreciated and valued.  

What I learned on my Bass Connections team allowed me to join more engineering clubs with confidence — like Duke Motorsports, where tools and teamwork are required or your car will not work. In addition, I learned that teamwork requires commitment, accountability, and at times, a lot of diplomacy. Bass Connections made me realize the type of job I want when I graduate: one in which there is a defined goal, one that helps change people’s lives and one where I am valued and make others feel appreciated. 

Bass Connections is truly about making connections with yourself, your peers and your future. I am so grateful I took advantage of Bass Connections at Duke. I will be back at Duke next year to earn my master of mechanical engineering — I would not be doing so without Bass Connections!

May 2023