The NEW Engineering Design Process

By Jaime B.

This course allowed me to explore in an in-depth and hands-on way what it meant to have a professional mission for social good in the context of being an engineer.  I realize now this was the missing piece of my earlier explorations in to doing social good – they had all be in coursework, projects, and personal interests outside of my discipline.  This course found a way to inject the meaning of social good into what it meant to be an engineer in a meaningful and impactful way and change my fundamental methods of operation as an egineer.  How can I explain that?  Well, let’s take the essential method of the engineer, the design cycle, and look at how my understanding of each stage was changed as a results of this course.  Let’s review, shall we?

Stage 1: Define the problem and gather information.

Normally we learn this stage includes completing market research, researching existing knowledge and solutions, and evaluating what features lead to a good product.  In this course I learned where these methods fall short and what questions we should ask ourselves to supplement our current education.  Whose cultural perspective are we defining the problem from?  Is it our own or is that of those who we’re attempting to serve (hint: I learned it should be this one).  Have we considered the causes of the problem, and whether engineers are responsible for those causes?

Stage 2: Concept generation and evaluations of concepts.

Perhaps this is the stage of the design process that most directly relates to this course.  In this stage we should be asking ourselves the essential questions, what is the unintended consequence of our concept?  Who benefits from our concept?  Who does not?  Is our concept serving those who really need it, or is it taking advantage of the public?  For example, let’s say I had developed a new battery technology for a power tool that would increase performance for the user – but have I checked to make sure the materials from that battery can be sustainably sourced?  Where are they from and are the workers in this industry treated fairly?  And what will happen to the battery after the consumer is done with it?

Stage 3: Embodiment design.

Here’s where the rubber hits the road and raw materials and sketches turn into engineering drawings and products. In this class I learned from the project we partnered with our non-profit on about this stage.  In this project a significant amount of new metrics and constraints were added to the project design that I had not seen in my studies before.  We had to consider project performance measured in units of impact (and how to define ‘impact’), and how the generous philanthropic resources of this class would be best used.  These design considerations were new and strange but through them I learned how to better implement them in my future career.

Phew!  Good job, everyone.  Now, let’s summarize.

This course was the first time I spent a whole semester focused on how my engineering activities can be focused for social good.  This in-depth exercise was unlike my other brushes with the topic before.  Simply put, without this in-depth experience the subtleties of how engineering and social change mingle would have been partly lost on me.  The philanthropic mission of the course also gave this exploration a ‘hands-on’ aspect that furthered my learning even more.  Throughout our education we are told that in-depth and hands-on learning is a path to success and I agree!  So why should the intersection of social change and doing good be an exception to this?  This class ensured it wouldn’t be, and in my future career, as I interact with the tools of the engineer, such as the design cycle (well, my revised cycle, that is), I will keep these lessons in mind.

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