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.