To acquire wisdom, one must observe

New Engineering course: Introduction to design methodology

This past fall semester, Director of Design and Innovation Ian Roy and Associate Professor of Physics Ben Rogers developed the first course in the new Brandeis Engineering program, ENGR 11A Introduction to Design Methodology. This semester, Roy and Michael Norton, Lecturer in Engineering and Research Scientist at the Materials Research Science and Engineering Group, are teaching ENGR 11A for the second iteration. In an interview with The Hoot, Roy and Norton share some insights about the course and the broader relevance of engineering in today’s world. 

The focus of ENGR 11A is to teach students about human-centered design and work on projects that fall under the theme of “Design to repair the world,” as described in the syllabus. The process of design involves forming a well-posed idea, crafting schematics to illustrate the idea and multiple iterations of prototyping. Some skills that students in the course will learn are Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM), Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and laser cutting. 

The course is organized into two parts. During the first half, students will work independently to design an upper limb prosthesis using open source design ideas, utilizing the digital fabrication workflow and finally testing prototypes with different materials or features. During the second half of the course, students will work in groups to come up with upper limb prosthesis for a real human with a limb difference. This will involve the consideration of human physiology in concert with design methodology. 

The idea for centering the course around the problem of limb prosthesis design stemmed from a desire to employ technical tools issues regarding human empathy and social responsibility. Roy described how the Prosthesis Club at Brandeis was already making hands using 3D printing via the organization e-NABLE, and he had already been in collaboration with e-NABLE for their educational efforts. “This project was chosen for its real-world application and its potential to make a significant impact on individuals’ lives. It is also a great way to learn about “open source hardware.” Everyone understands how software can be open source, but hardware designs can also be shared in the same way. It is really all about documentation and iteration. If you are designing a wheel today, you don’t want to start from scratch. It is better to look at thousands of wheels and adapt one to suit your design needs. Using open source hardware like e-NABLE hands teaches students the practical aspects of design and engineering (we all create documentation, and we all consume documentation) while grounding them in the social and ethical dimensions of their work,” Roy explained. 

Learning about design fosters skills necessary for today’s dynamic workforce, Roy and Michael assert. The course imparts a guided system to approaching situations where one must navigate uncertainty and must learn from mistakes. Since adapting to changing environments and continually revising work are pillars of the design process, ENGR 11A has relevance for students beyond their time at Brandeis, Roy shared. Norton added, “The world we interact with is largely a constructed one. The choices we’ve collectively made about the shape and function of that world have tremendous impacts on our behavior, physical and mental health and the natural world. Learning to think deeply about those systems, the problems they solve, and the problems they create and feeling empowered to act on those insights is essential in many fields. I’m excited to teach ENGR11 this semester because it uses 3D printing and other digital fabrication technologies to lower the threshold for building so that students can engage with the problems they are trying to solve and rapidly iterate on solutions.”

Upcoming courses in the Engineering program, such as ENGR 13A Modeling and Simulation, will serve as a deep dive into how engineers harness computational tools to test and improve their designs. Brandeis is actively searching for faculty members that have an expertise in engineering and design for social good. Furthermore, the team plans to include a capstone course where a student will employ their skills to solve an issue for a client. All of these courses will involve hands-on activities and will be under the context of real world issues such as climate change and resource management, Norton and Roy explained. 

Both Roy and Norton have ongoing engineering projects beyond the classroom. Roy is working on engineering-adjacent projects that enable archaeological projects through drones and robotics. “We have accepted our first Researcher in Residence project in the new engineering space: Professor Alexandra Ratzlaff’s 3D Scanning robot for digitizing material culture on archeology digs: the SCAPP bot. Parallel to this project, we use a variety of electronics prototyping methodologies in digital humanities projects that combines 3D scanning technology with historical preservation, aiming to create digital assets at a variety of scales: from as small as a pinhead, to human scale material culture, to digitizing whole landscapes with drones for analysis. My team both teaches how to build drones from scratch, but we also have a curriculum for how to get a [Federal Aviation Administration] or European Union drone license for field work. I’d like to publish an open source workflow for how to 3D scan particularly tricky things like Roman coins this spring—and to begin to push the limits of this technology smaller and smaller to as small as a bug’s head.” 

One project that Norton is currently working on involves using control theory to alter the behavior of light-activatable particles in biological systems. “Basically, we play a (microscopic) movie to a soup of polymers and enzymes and watch what they do in response! This project involves getting theory and experiment to work seamlessly together. Since so much of what I do normally lives on a computer, working on a team where we are engineering a physical tool is exciting. The team members are graduate students and postdocs in the labs of Seth Fraden, Zvonimir Dogic (UCSB), Mike Hagan, Aparna Baskaran and Pengyu Hong,” he shared.

“I’d like to emphasize the transformative power of education when it intersects with technology and social consciousness. At Brandeis, we’re not just teaching engineering; we’re cultivating a mindset of innovation for societal good. Our approach is about looking beyond the conventional, asking how we can use our skills and knowledge to make a meaningful difference in the world. And our concept of “Design to Repair the World” is not just an outward facing philosophy: I have found personally that the best way to heal yourself is to help others,” Roy concluded.

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