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Real Real-World Problems

Two years later, many of these students return to the Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory to tackle even more challenging projects. The seniors in the MDL Experience are still looking for solutions to real-world problems—but with a twist. In their case, they collaborate with an actual corporation, foundation, or entrepreneur who’s provided financial and technical support in return for a team of fresh, creative minds.

“This is really an opportunity for the students to integrate a lot of the information they’ve had in their previous coursework,” says Gary Gabriele, who designed both the MDL and the major in Product Design and Innovation (PDI). “They have to go back to that knowledge they’ve learned in a different course or even build upon it to educate themselves about something they never knew before.”

Games People Play

The process of invention seems to transcend disciplinary boundaries, encompassing everything from industrial air filters to interactive pet toys...and even video games. In Kathleen Ruiz’s studio arts course, Experimental Game Design, diverse teams of students work together to create working video games. The course begins with extensive research into gaming history and the students’ personal preferences. Ruiz’s guiding principle: “If it’s been done before, don’t do it.”

The result are games that envision a world without gravity, or that require physical interaction with the computer. (For once, you can throw something at the screen and it will respond.) Ruiz says the teams bring together visual and sound artists, computer scientists, and engineers to create video games layered with talents from each discipline.

“I love the mixture. There’s such a collaborative, studio atmosphere,” says Ruiz, an assistant professor of multidisciplinary electronic art. “I feel it’s important the arts have a dialogue with the other disciplines. We’ll need that as we face the complex problems of the future.”

The teams first create a storyboard of their game, describing the story, the characters, the game “world,” and the rules. After incorporating the feedback of their classmates, the team creates the game on computer, along with a detailed design document, a description of the target audience, and the impact it may have on our culture.

“It’s a fun title, but they work very hard,” says Ruiz. Many of them also succeed in the business. Several graduates are now “innovators” in the field of game design, bringing the creative process they learned at Rensselaer to an emerging industry.

In fact, the nature of the MDL projects favors a team with a solid foundation not just in one engineering discipline, but in many. This quickly becomes evident at a meeting of the EZ Cork team, as the six members sit around a large table, trading ideas for a “strippable” synthetic wine cork.

“We all work off each other, that’s what makes this great. One person comes up with something and then someone else suggests a variation on that idea,” says Philippe Montillier. “It’s actually like a real-life experience.”

Montillier begins the meeting by offering an overview of the team’s work so far. As industrial engineering students, he and Sarah Jurta manage the logistics of the project and confirm the team’s data. PDI major Andy Chang describes the research he’s conducted on the preferences of wine drinkers and the implications that has for the cork’s design. Chang also joined mechanical engineering students Aaron O’Connor and Nat Fake to create the cork production machine’s design on a CAD program and then build a prototype that etches spiral cuts into the cork. Meanwhile, materials engineer Mike Thompson is ensuring the adhesives will seal the cork properly.

The idea for a “strippable” cork was invented by entrepreneur and airline pilot Mark Boudreau, who approached the MDL to help him make it. A wine connoisseur, Boudreau wanted to develop a traditional-looking cork that can be opened without a corkscrew.

“The tradition would still be there. The maitre d’ can display the cork, you still could open it with a corkscrew. But if you’re out in the field or on a plane and you don’t have one, you can just grab this tab—,” says Boudreau, pulling on a tiny invisible handle at the top of a cork, “and it just comes out like a spring.”

The EZ Cork team shares the lab with 11 other sponsored projects. There are four from the National Science Foundation, including a lightweight power-assisted wheelchair and an improved hand-cycle for physically disabled cyclists. Seniors also can devote much of their final year to industry-sponsored projects, including the search for a more efficient steam turbine for GE Power Generation, an advanced air filtration system for UTC Carrier Division, and a new elevator design for UTC Otis Elevator.

“We work closely with potential sponsors to identify challenging, open-ended, real-world problems. They give us projects they haven’t had time to pursue themselves, as well as funding and professional support,” says Mark Steiner ’78, the director of the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory. “These are truly substantive projects that provide a natural motivation for the students.”

The EZ Cork team is already moving on to its second prototype—an automated machine that guides the cork through a set of blades, creating a spiral cut that will allow the wine drinker to easily remove the cork. Entrepreneur Mark Boudreau shakes his head in wonder as he ponders the team’s aluminum and rubber machine.

“That right there would have made my life so much easier. It’s unbelievable—I hand cut 500 corks and then they put that together,” says Boudreau. “Everything it took me three years to think about and research, it took these guys a week or two to come up with. It was amazing to see.”

But there are limitations to these projects. Mike Gradziel, a mechanical engineering student working on the Otis Elevator project, says a team may come up with off-the-wall ideas, but they can’t always pursue them when there’s a company expecting results.

“I’m sure we could have built a complex solution that met all the objectives, but it wouldn’t have been a lot of use if Otis couldn’t mass-produce it,” says Gradziel, who’s developing an elevator design that would save space and reduce costs. “Cost constraints are a serious issue, and we felt it’s part of our job to take that into consideration.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2003
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