Design Engineering Debuts

Two Harvard faculties collaborate, aiming to solve real-world problems.

Deans Mohsen Mostafavi and Francis J. Doyle III
Photograph courtesy of School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

How can aging and elderly populations be accommodated in today’s cities? What must coastal areas do to adapt to rising sea levels? Could the petroleum-based transportation system be shifted to natural-gas fueling—and how?

The faculties of Harvard’s schools of design and engineering and applied sciences today unveiled a collaborative master’s degree in design engineering (MDE) aimed at preparing students to deal with challenges like these. The two-year program—bringing professors’ expertise in architecture, landscape design, and urban planning together with diverse engineering expertise—aims to enroll its first students in the fall of 2016. As design dean Mohsen Mostafavi noted in a conversation preceding the announcement, the new program comes at a moment when “design thinking” has risen in prominence as an approach to solving multidisciplinary, difficult problems, in realms from business to government.

According to the news announcement, in pursuit of solutions to “large, technically deep, complex, multi-scale, and open-ended problems,” the curriculum will explore engineering, design, and “economics, business, government regulation and policy, and sociology.” The announcement cited new engineering and applied sciences dean Francis J. Doyle III, who observed that emerging technologies and design practices “offer unpredecented opportunities for innovation. From new materials and fabrication techniques to increasingly sophisticated distribution systems and prototyping technologies, practitioners today have at their disposal a powerful design engineering toolkit.” Their MDE training aims to equip them to use those tools to address “big systemic problems.”

In the announcement, President Drew Faust said the program “will encourage the quantitative, computational, visual and aesthetic thinking that will prepare students for leadership roles requiring broad problem-solving skills in industry, government, NGOs, and academia.”   

The program looms larger than its initial cohort (envisioned as perhaps a dozen students). The MDE hopes to address these large, complex, socially significant challenges by drawing deliberately on clearly diverse disciplines, with the promise of attracting other faculties’ experts in the future. And it attempts to model the University’s aspirations for interschool collaboration.  

The Educational Contexts

Engineering education has “traditionally had a capstone design program,” but that has often been limited in scope, said Doyle in the earlier conversation: projects typically drew only on engineering disciplines. Bringing engineering and design expertise into proximity (the MDE, though a collaboration, is formally embedded in a design-school degree, not a fully joint venture) makes it possible, he said, to envision such educational projects incorporating engineering with design, aesthetic, and other “creative” perspectives.

Students have already embraced this approach through “maker fairs,” Doyle said. Society more broadly has come to appreciate the value and success of integrated design and engineering enterprises (Mostafavi cited Apple, Google, and social networks). And the changing, increasingly global nature of problems makes a design-engineering approach right for the times, the deans observed. Doyle noted that Harvard is especially well suited to evolve this kind of training given its design and engineering strengths embedded not in technical institutes but in a liberal-arts institution “where students are learning about the world.”

Mostafavi pointed to existing research collaborations with faculty members who have worked on problems involving new materials at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, including Joanna Aizenberg, Berylson professor of materials science, and Martin Bechthold, professor of architectural technology. (Both have been involved in conceiving the MDE.) He also cited the iLab, where design and engineering faculty members have been involved in evaluating and mentoring student design competitions.

“Purposive and Open”

What kinds of students will Harvard seek to attract to its MDE? The program seeks to address “very complex, multilayered, real-world problems” that do not have “textbook solutions,” Doyle said, so the ideal candidates would be very interested in thinking about the future. Mostafavi underscored the importance of candidates’ bringing an “entrepreneurial dimension” to their work. Great designers, he said, “can’t always articulate the way in which they position their ideas” to “create success, to make things happen”—whereas the new program hopes to graduate “proactive” professionals who can realize their ideas.

Candidates, therefore, will come to the MDE course of study with at least some years of work experience, after undergraduate training in design, engineering, or other disciplines. The aim, Mostafavi said, is a student cohort combining, as a whole, design dexterity—strengths in visualization and fabrication, for instance—with engineering depth in mathematics, physics, and so on. The intent is not to graduate designers who have become full-fledged engineers, nor engineers who are ready for licensure to practice as architects or city planners—what Doyle called “jack-of-all trades” individuals. Rather, the hope is to equip practitioners who expect to work together with some understanding of concepts from both fields, drawing in expertise as needed to solve big problems collaboratively (see “A Grounded Pedagogy,” below, on the curriculum). The MDE approach is premised on fostering that kind of preparation by educating practitioners as team members, rather than deepening their immersion in what Doyle deemed individual disciplinary “islands.”

Given the nature of those problems, Mostafavi said, “We’re looking for something that opens up the world to very pragmatic solutions, but also to ideas that may not be immediately realizable.” MDE candidates should be people who are eager to “think in different ways. It needs to be both purposive and open.”

A Grounded Pedagogy

Faculty colleagues have long felt that “design as a practice could help not just solve problems but understand the issues that our increasingly complex world gives us,” said one of the leaders in creating the new program, K. Michael Hays, Noyes professor of architectural theory and associate dean for academic affairs. He mentioned climate change, natural disasters, and manmade disasters such as hunger and inadequate housing. “Multiscale” issues like these (as an analogy, Hays suggested envisioning the range from an individual app to the entire Apple iPhone ecosystem of devices, software, and transmission hardware) might be fruitfully articulated or conceptualized in design terms. But architects and associated design professionals, he continued, might lack the technical and organizational expertise that experienced engineers, business people, or social entrepreneurs could deploy. Hence, the opportunity for an educational program intended to “bring people with different expertise together and get them to collaborate.”

K. Michael Hays
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard Graduate School of Design

That collaboration is nicely embodied in the relationship between Hays and Woodward Yang, McKay professor of electrical engineering and applied science, one of his counterparts in shaping the master’s program. “There are no two people more different than Woody and I,” said Hays; resorting to the old joke, he described his engineering prowess as limited to changing a light bulb. Yang, who works on integrated-circuit design, would seem an impossible fit with an architectural theorist. But, Yang noted, during the quarter-century he has taught at Harvard since earning his Ph.D. at MIT, “I’ve come to appreciate there’s so much more to making things work and solving problems than just being technically right or solving scientific problems.” Part of that perspective came from his own business experience and engagements at Harvard Business School, where he was the initial University Fellow in 2008. Yang said the success of commercial solutions in the marketplace could never be accounted for solely by their technical or economic “correctness,” but also depended on “all these other factors,” extending from a business’s social context to its fit with cultural barriers.

Woodward Yang

Photograph by Eliza Grinnell/School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

He pointed to the junior-year undergraduate course, Engineering Sciences 96, “Engineering Problem Solving and Project Design,” as a model for introducing holistic, collaborative, multidisciplinary (at least within engineering) work of this sort to teams of students. “This is a class where students touch the real world and come up with technical solutions,” he said. “You couldn’t do this in a class on differential equations.” (Past projects have addressed the transition to an online engineering library [2004], “Bridging the Gap” to an Allston campus by figuring out how to transport students to new facilities there [2008], and clean-up of the tsunami-ravaged nuclear complex at Fukushima, Japan [2014]. This year’s challenge is closer to home: working with Harvard’s campus-services crew to conceive new solutions to keeping the University’s facilities safe and functional should next winter replicate last season’s record snowfall.) It is a mash-up of this kind of project workshop and the design school’s project studios—where clients critique students’ work—that informs a core element of the instructional plan for the MDE.

Hays said that from the outset, design-school colleagues have aspired to focus the evolving MDE on social problems—complex needs that continue to evolve and if anything threaten to become more complex. The design school is the appropriate locus for the initiative, he observed, because cities and landscapes—the built and human environment—are the loci where the social problems have to be addressed. They have “a physical dimension,” and design and engineering are the Harvard schools most immediately immersed in physical places and space: grounded, so to speak, on the ground. Over time, of course, this kind of training, and the implementation of solutions arising from design thinking, could readily embrace faculty members and students from the public-health, business, and Kennedy schools. But at least at the outset, he emphasized, “Cities and landscapes are where policies become manifest.”

(In its social focus, the MDE differs explicitly from at least the popular conception of Stanford’s acclaimed Plattner Institute of Design, which is particularly associated with outstanding product design, and from that university’s joint program in design, offered by the mechanical engineering and art departments, which is also product-focused. The September Harvard Business Review, featuring “The Evolution of Design Thinking,” includes an overview of the field, as broadly applied, by the CEO of IDEO, the internationally known design firm founded and led by David Kelley, founder of Stanford’s Plattner Institute/

To prepare to address such problems, first-year students with design backgrounds might take engineering-oriented courses, and their engineering-savvy peers would get acquainted with design principles and aesthetic theory. Yang expects core courses to draw on the business school’s case method—illustrating, for example, the networks and ecosystems in which problems arise and are addressed.

But the students would also spend much time together in a studio or laboratory immersion experience, addressing (with both schools’ faculties) a huge issue such as the fate of the Rhode Island coast as the sea level rises—an example Hays cited. This would involve class and field work, immediate reactions and long-term projections, and foraging for expertise as needed: students wouldn’t take a course on hydrology, but might bring in hydrologists as needed. (From the MDE’s cohort of faculty planners, one could imagine contributions by Aizenberg, whose discovery of low-friction surfaces might have applications to handling volumes of water in storm surges; robotics experts like Charles River professor of engineering and applied sciences Robert Wood, creator of microrobot drones that might detect problems and mobile, soft-bodied robots that might help solve them; and the design school’s Martin Bechthold, who explores robotic fabrication.)

After the first year of “leveling” courses, second-year studies would incorporate more electives, Hays said, so students could go deeper in a chosen area of inquiry (he cited robotics and the manufacturing of building components or new building materials). In common, the students might address a single, enormous studio project involving system design. For example, Woodward Yang said, what would the United States require to move from fueling automobiles with gasoline to fueling them with abundant, cleaner natural gas? Given the lower energy density of natural gas, would cars need much larger fuel tanks—and therefore new car designs? Or could new materials enable higher-pressure tanks and storage? What about fueling stations and distribution lines? Could customers with natural-gas heating systems tap into those lines at home? How would each component of the problem be addressed, and how would possible solutions integrate into a workable whole?

“Students would be enabled to think about these problems not just on a technical and a design scale,” Yang said, “but at a larger scale.” And emerging from their MDE experience, they would have a network of fellow experts and collaborators with whom to pursue implementation of their ideas, if they so chose.

Simply thinking about such a program with design-school counterparts has been revealing, Yang said. “They understand things that we don’t understand,” he said. For example, what does it mean to make a light bulb “better”? An engineer might make it brighter, but a designer might emphasize more even spread of illumination, color, and so on. “What do people want?”—a design question, not an engineering problem. Professionals with a design perspective “can get us to better understand the softer side of things.” From an engineering perspective, he said, that might seem wishy-washy—but it is where comprehensive, cohesive solutions to clients’ needs can arise.

(And although the subject did not come up in conversation, the design school’s Center for Green Buildings and Cities raises just the kinds of problems the MDE is seemingly planned to engage. Professor of architectural technology Ali Malkawi, the center’s director and a member of the MDE planning group, has spoken about “rethink[ing] conventions of design practice” to “fundamentally shift the ways humans use energy in the long term.” For example, he envisions walls that are themselves a building’s light-collecting and energy system. But merely creating such materials is a first step. Getting them used implies changes in building and zoning codes, procurement, and construction practices that differ radically from current stick-framing with 2 x 4 dimensional lumber and sheets of plywood or particle-board: a system-scale design problem if ever there were one.)

From Tiny Acorns…

With the program approved, the MDE’s most important next step is recruiting its first few classes of students. Mostafavi thinks the degree will appeal because it differs from existing interdisciplinary offerings at other institutions, which put the onus on students who seek broad preparation to assemble a palette of courses from different departments and schools, and then to integrate the content and methodologies on their own. The MDE—already backed by the thoughtful planning of a dozen Harvard design and engineering faculty members—incorporates that integrated education from inception. As they work together and share research projects, he said, the faculty members’ own ideas are likely to evolve. The teaching, he said, is unlikely to exactly mirror practice in either existing school. And it has been interesting to see engineers contemplate problems in their built, physical context, and to recognize that large engineering projects are “full of aesthetic judgments.”

Doyle noted that engineering and applied sciences at Harvard are nondepartmental, freeing the MDE program from the dominance of a field like mechanical engineering, and therefore making it easier to be “organic and rational” in taking on big social problems.

If the program takes root and expands, its Harvardian brand of “Design thinking” could well embrace work with the business and Kennedy School faculties, public-health experts, and others. Were that to occur, Doyle suggested, the MDE would break new ground in another way, as well. The design and engineering facilities in Cambridge can accommodate teaching of the first few, small cohorts of students. But if the program scales up, the kinds of flexible teaching rooms affiliated with “maker spaces” will likely have to be in the science and engineering complex under design for construction, starting next year, in Allston (in convenient proximity to the business school and the iLab). And who would teach and conduct research there will be affected, as well: both deans indicated that faculty searches already are being influenced by the new pedagogies their prospective colleagues imagined as they created the MDE.

Read the University announcement here.


Read more articles by: John S. Rosenberg

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