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Designed to Make a Difference

“So much of what passes for ‘design’ and ‘innovation’ right now are visual and functional changes that appeal to the desires of the wealthy rather than to the urgent needs of the Earth’s population as a whole,” says Langdon Winner, Thomas Phelan Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of science and technology studies, who teaches Studio 2. “At a time in which global climate change, world hunger, and other crucial problems cry out for effective solutions, it’s important for our students to find approaches that are both ingenious and truly responsive.”

A number of student designs respond to this need in inventive ways.

• An interconnecting design for the bottles used to transport water to citizens in developing nations allows them to be interlocked to construct furniture or shelter areas once empty.

• A device to split cocoa pods in Ghana, the world’s largest producer of cocoa, where 70 percent of Ghanaian children ages 5-9 are engaged in agriculture, and of those, 32 percent have reported work-related injuries — including severed limbs — due to the hazards associated with splitting the cocoa pods.

• A proposal to create a form of refrigeration independent of electricity to help preserve food and medicines in developing nations.

• Innovative designs for the elderly, including a new model wheelchair, an indoor garden, and a more user-friendly computer key board. The designs were featured on the television program It’s An Age Thing, about the lives of senior citizens in the Capital Region, which was aired on the region’s PBS channel WMHT.

“In every studio, we try to give students a balance between the methodology and the engineering principles needed to create a functional design and the cultural aspect of how a design will impact the world and the people in it,” says Steiner.

From Concept to Corporate

All of the previous studio courses culminate in Studio 7 in the School of Engineering’s O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Lab. The experience integrates engineering and DIS students, partnering them as they work on a real design challenge sponsored by industry, nonprofit organizations, or individuals with entrepreneurial interests.

Steiner pairs DIS students with engineering students to help the engineers understand the value of creative problem solving and iteration.

“Designers commonly spend their time building beautiful models that by all calculations should work,” says Steiner. “Then it’s the engineer’s job to figure out how to build the model into a ‘thing’ and get it to work — we’re trying to integrate that left and right brain thinking into one person. That’s the goal.”

Sponsors come to the MDL to solicit the fresh thinking needed to come up with viable solutions to real design challenges. DIS and engineering students spend an entire semester working on a solution to a specific problem, presenting their results to a panel at the end of the semester, with industry leaders such as IBM, GE, and Northrop Grumman often reaping the benefits.

For the last two years, students have been working with GE to develop a way to see inside a steam turbine while it’s working to monitor whether water droplets are forming on the turbine blades, which can erode them and negatively impact efficiency.

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Designs on the Future

As scientific advances in nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and other disciplines continue to evolve, and concerns regarding the environment become increasingly urgent, tomorrow’s engineers and designers will be called upon like never before to act as leaders in industry, academia, and government.
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The students recently came up with a solution to snake a fiber-optic bundle into the turbine to get images in real time and generate a computer algorithm to detect the level of erosion. “They presented their idea to GE and the company is excited with their initial work,” says Steiner. “Our goal with this and every project is to develop the idea to the point where the company can take it and implement it.”

Inventing a Better Future

A final stop for many students in their senior year is Inventor’s Studio, an elective class created and taught by Swersey that takes them through the patenting and invention process.

“I’ve seen ideas that students have had that had great potential, but ended up evaporating because they weren’t followed through,” says Swersey. “So I created this course to really push them to say ‘this is what’s needed, this is the ideal solution, I’m going to do whatever it takes to make this solution a reality.’”

A number of PDI students have pursued their ideas outside of the classroom, winning business plan competitions and launching their own start-up ventures.

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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.