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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.

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Designs on the Future

STOMP (Scanning Thermal and Optical Measurement Platform) foot-scanning technology developed by Jessica Chin ’07 and Dan Farrow ’07

Students in the internationally recognized Design, Innovation, and Society program are learning how to change the world, one invention at a time.

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“Students who elect to enroll in the PDI program are special coming in the door,” says Mark Steiner, interim chair of the program and director of the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Lab (MDL), where most PDI and engineering students complete their capstone course before graduation. “They come to Rensselaer already socially aware, and intensely committed to making their mark on the world. Our job is to give them the tools and skill set to do that.”

Like its students, this program is special in its own right. With an emphasis on learning by doing, the program is built around eight studio classes—one every semester — meaning students spend less time reading from a textbook, sitting in front of a computer, or manipulating numbers and formulas, and more time researching global challenges and potential solutions, sketching ideas, developing computer models, and building prototypes.

“We want students to immediately begin to think of themselves as designers,” says Steiner. “Design is a lot like dance. To be a dancer you need to get out on the dance floor and just do it; you can’t fake it. The same is true for a designer. If you want to be one, you have to get out there and start designing. It’s OK if all of your ideas aren’t great — and they won’t be — the process of empowering yourself to put them down on paper is invaluable.”

From the very beginning, DIS students are immersed in an environment that encourages them to identify, define, and solve global needs that are oftentimes overlooked. Their assignments run the gamut of topics, from devising a water purification system for developing nations to creating a device to help improve the lives of senior citizens, but share the common thread of “applying science for practical purposes to positively affect people’s lives,” says Steiner.

“From the first day of the first studio class, the emphasis of this program is on social awareness. We aren’t developing designers who can make a better widget for the sake of making one. We’re developing designers who can go out into our increasingly interrelated global community and identify a need — not a want — study it, understand it, and address it.”

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.