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Taking It to the Streets

While financial and time constraints are common factors in any engineering plan, students in Rensselaer’s Product Design and Innovation program take a much broader view at the start of a new project—they study the effects the proposed design will have on the outside world.

Team EZ Cork

Team EZ Cork: Students in the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory (MDL) work closely with potential sponsors to identify challenging, open-ended, real-world problems. The idea for a “strippable” wine 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. “Everything it took me three years to think about and research, it took these guys a week or two to come up with,” says Boudreau. “It was amazing to see.” Photo by Mark McCarty

“We see things in a social and environmental context, outside the paradigm of market demand,” explains Jeffrey Hannigan, associate professor of science and technology studies and the director of the PDI program. “That’s led to the identification of real opportunities for innovation within those concerns, which aren’t addressed by the dominant culture.”

The Product Design and Innovation major was created in 1998 as a dual major in Science, Technology and Society and engineering or architecture. While the majority of students choose the mechanical engineering path, Gabriele says they’re often the type who would be restless in a traditional engineering program.

“PDI attracts very creative students who have lots of ideas and really want an opportunity to explore them,” says Gabriele, one of the program’s founders. “They’re interested in the technical stuff but they don’t necessarily want to create technology. They want to create designs.”

In other words, these are students who love to invent stuff. Neil Grabowsky, one of the creators of T-Mail, the e-mail machine for technophobes, says he noticed a difference as soon as he began working with other engineers in IED and Inventor’s Studio. While many students became frustrated when the professor repeatedly challenged their ideas, Grabowsky relished the opportunity to scrap everything and start again.

“In PDI, we’re really pushed to come up with an idea and drop it, [then] come up with another and drop that, as opposed to starting with one plan at the beginning of the semester and staying with it,” says Grabowsky, who’s taken eight design courses as part of the PDI curriculum. “So it’s almost nice when someone says, ‘You can do more with this.’ It gives you the drive to find that better idea.”

PDI students also bring a social science perspective to an engineering team, conducting research to discover the effect a product will have on the consumer. For instance, PDI major Andy Chang led an ethnographic study for the EZ Cork team, investigating the cultural preferences of wine connoisseurs.

“I studied their traditions and what they desire in a cork and discovered connoisseurs don’t want a weird gadget where the cork should be,” says Chang. “The team realized that this placed limitations on our design.”

Perhaps the most valuable role a PDI team member can play is as a bridge between colleagues in different disciplines.

“They can work with the very creative people at the front end of the process, people who develop just a few quick sketches, and then translate those ideas and communicate them to engineers in a way not many other disciplines can,” explains Gabriele.

Student inventor Neil Grabowsky puts it another way: “It’s like they’re putting both brains, the designer and the engineer, into one head. That makes it work better because we can come up with the design and, at the same time, know what factors go into the engineering.”

But not everyone feels comfortable with courses that favor ill-defined, open-ended problems as opposed to the exercises in a textbook. Gabriele says some faculty, and even students, fear these courses may lack the rigor of a traditional engineering class. He assures them that’s not the case.

“These courses are much more rigorous in terms of the demands on students,” says Gabriele. “The important message here is that we’re still a good engineering school. But we’re challenging students on these other axes as well now... and these are the axes that will teach them how to think and work.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
Front Page At Rensselaer Milestones
In Memoriam Making a Difference Staying Connected
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