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Young engineers take on real design challenges

Chicago Tribune story features human-centered design and communication course

  • Students help ophthalmologist transport heavy equipment to developing countries
  • Three student teams worked to design a lighter load for eye doctor
  • Unique course offers hands-on, real-world experience to every engineering student
  • Clients include girl with cerebral palsy, a hospital, an insurance company

EVANSTON - Toting a 70-pound operating microscope and its cases to developing nations around the world, Skokie ophthalmologist Dr. Stuart Sondheimer thought there must be a better way. So, according to a recent Chicago Tribune article, he asked first-year engineering students at Northwestern University to help him lighten his load. 

Three teams in the hands-on Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) course were assigned Sondheimer’s problem as part of their spring-quarter DTC course. DTC is a long-running bedrock class in the McCormick School of Engineering’s curriculum, required of all first-year students. The teams (four students to a team) presented their solutions to Sondheimer last month during final presentations.

Sondheimer told the Tribune he initially was skeptical because his medical equipment suppliers said they’d reduced the equipment weight as much as possible. “They were wrong,” he said in the article. “It could be done better, and these kids came up with some good solutions.”

A two-quarter course sequence, DTC focuses on the human-centered design process and communication. Each class of only 16 students, split into four separate design teams, is co-taught by faculty from McCormick Engineering and the Cook Family Writing Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

Teams are assigned real design problems for individuals, companies and community organizations. In students’ first DTC quarter (either fall or winter), each client is someone with a disability, often from the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). All four teams in a class have the same client, while in the second quarter (spring), when the client source broadens, each team in a class has a different client.

In the case of the ophthalmology equipment project, SEE International was the DTC client, connecting the students with Sondheimer. He works as a volunteer eye surgeon with the organization, conducting cataract surgery on disadvantaged people around the world.

“Students are exposed to tricky, ambiguous problems and learn how to approach them,” said Kim Hoffmann, associate director of Segal Design Institute, which oversees the DTC course. “Design Thinking and Communication helps students frame their entire experience as an engineer at Northwestern.”

First piloted in 1997, the course was fully integrated into the freshman curriculum by the year 2000.

This past spring quarter, when all McCormick freshmen were taking the course, DTC had 33 sections, each class with two faculty, with more than 50 different clients. For the entire year, DTC had more than 80 projects, including 25 with RIC. The projects included:

  • Modifying a sewing machine to make it easier for a 10-year old girl with cerebral palsy to use
  • Redesigning spaces, storage and traffic flow at GCE Lab School
  • Designing a way for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at a local hospital to be bathed while swaddled to prevent stress and heat loss
  • Helping the Northwestern diving team practice mid-air maneuvers through a training/spotting device to improve rotation, balance and other diving techniques
  • Developing an easy-to-deploy temporary hail protection system for use at automobile dealer lots

“The resources required of DTC, the sheer size of the whole endeavor, is mind-boggling,” Hoffmann said. “It takes a lot of coordination to deliver this unique hands-on, real-world experience to every engineering student at Northwestern, and we’ve been doing it for nearly 20 years.”

 The Segal Design Institute welcomes design project ideas for the upcoming year from individuals, companies and community organizations. Submissions can be made online

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