Engineering courses broaden appeal

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Photo by Josh Satok.

In an effort to draw a more diverse selection of students, some engineering professors have broadened the focus of their courses in recent years.

Two advanced engineering courses that emphasize socioeconomic factors and consumer needs — a departure from engineering’s traditionally technical approach — are becoming increasingly popular with students. Vincent Wilczynski, deputy dean for the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said these interdisciplinary courses encourage students to combine engineering with other fields to address real-world problems. He added that as student demand for these courses continues to increase, he anticipates other engineering professors may introduce similar design courses, particularly after the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design opens next fall.

Mechanical engineering professor John Morrell, who co-teaches “Appropriate Technology and the Developing World,” said demand for the course has exceeded the 18 slots in its first two years, adding that this spring he there was an increase in interest from professional schools students and undergraduates in fields other than engineering. Another interdisciplinary course, “Biotechnology and the Developing World,” attracted only three students when it was first offered two years ago, but eight took the course last year, and some interested students were denied spots this spring after around 80 students shopped the seminar, said biomedical engineering professor Anjelica Gonzalez, the course’s instructor.

“The course allows someone with less technical backgrounds to use their expertise to come up with very appropriate designs,” Gonzalez said. “We’re very interested in reaching out to the [student body] as a whole. Engineering can get a bad rap for being mathematically intensive, so this helps make it accessible.”

The two courses split class time into two sections: analysis of the research and development process through case studies, and the development of technological solutions to issues in developing countries. Gonzalez said past projects have included the creation of new vaccines, a vitamin delivery system and medical equipment, adding that some students have tested their designs over the summer using research fellowships.

Morrell, a former Segway engineer, said students in his course have produced several promising ideas, but testing a design in the field takes a significant effort that is not feasible in a one semester class. He added that he hopes some students may bring their ideas to agencies in developing countries.

“Once we’ve got as much as we can in a classroom environment, we hope to bundle the ideas to [field test] them, but we haven’t come up with a good process for doing that,” Morrell said. “While we can do some interesting projects, nothing sets us up to do a multi-year commercialization trial.”

Seven students interviewed who are taking the interdisciplinary design courses said the combination of technical engineering strategies and societal research offers a useful framework to approach real-world issues. Two SOM students in the mechanical engineering course said they enrolled in part to have the chance to work with engineers.

“It’s not just their knowledge … but also the way they think about a problem,” Elliot Greenberger SOM ’12. “Some of them are obsessed with technical data, and that’s just not the first place my mind goes. I also believe it’s more reflective of what work teams and organizations will increasingly look like in the real world.”

Joshua Pugil ’13, an environmental studies major, said he values the biotechnology course for its technological approach to issues in global health and its rigor in directing students through the process of designing a product.

But this type of interdisciplinary course does not appeal to all engineering students. Yishai Kamin ’12, a biomedical engineering major, said the approach of Gonzalez’ interdisciplinary biotechnology course is not as relevant to him since he plans to focus his studies on tissue engineering.

“Appropriate Technology and the Developing World” has no prerequisites, while “Biotechnology and the Developing World” requires students to have taken MCDB 120, “Principles of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology.”

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