by Amber Cleveland
In 1999, a group of faculty members from three schools across Rensselaer’s Troy campus had an idea: What if we looked beyond the scope of typical industrial design or engineering programs to develop a program that melded the technical sophistication of design and engineering disciplines with the social and cultural aspects found in an arts and humanities education? Could we create a radical new design curriculum capable of producing graduates who are not only equipped to design innovative products, services, and systems but who could apply their talents toward addressing the social and environmental needs of the 21st century?
Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, they worked together to lay out the foundation for Rensselaer’s Product Design and Innovation (PDI)
program a multidisciplinary, studio-based curriculum that married the School of Engineering’s core-engineering classes with the School of Architecture’s emphasis on design and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences’ attention to economic, ethical, cultural, and political dimensions of product development and the invention process.
Today, what started as a wild idea has become an internationally renowned program, recently earning Rensselaer recognition as one of the 60 “most forward-thinking design schools in the world,” according to BusinessWeek magazine.
Students have created products and inventions that are gaining national and international acclaim. Eben Bayer ’07 and Gavin McIntyre ’07, who created an organic insulation using waste agricultural materials, water, and mushrooms that could replace traditional foam insulation in homes, were winners in the 21st Century Challenge Competition hosted by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School in December. Jessica Chin ’07 and Dan Farrow ’07, who formed a start-up company to develop a new foot-scanning technology to help diabetic patients identify foot disorders, won the $50,000 Tech Valley Collegiate Business Plan Competition last fall.
Further proof of the success of the PDI program is evident with the launch of a bachelor of science degree in Design, Innovation, and Society (DIS). The first students were admitted to the new degree program in fall 2007, and they have the option to obtain a studio-based degree alone, or in combination with mechanical engineering, management, or a number of other areas of study.
Some have gone on to take design, engineering, development, and management positions in industry, government, or academia. Others have become inventors and entrepreneurs, patenting potentially life-changing inventions. All are helping to change the way design impacts the world.