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Exploring Interdisciplinary Design in Relation to Workplace Success and Campus Community

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Capstone Design Courses I

Tagged Division

Design in Engineering Education

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Paper Authors


Lisa M. Del Torto Northwestern University

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Lisa Del Torto is an Assistant Professor of Instruction in the Bobbie & Stanton Cook Family Writing Program at Northwestern University. She teaches and coordinates Northwestern's first-year design course, Design Thinking & Communication, a collaboration between the Cook Family Writing Program and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. Del Torto completed her PhD and MA in Linguistics at the University of Michigan and her BA in Linguistics and Spanish at New York University.

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Bruce Ankenman Northwestern University

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Bruce Ankenman is a Professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He received a BS in Electrical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University and after working in the automotive industry for five years, returned to graduate school for an MS and PhD in Industrial Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests primarily deal with the design and analysis of experiments that are used to build models for physical systems or metamodels for simulated systems. Professor Ankenman is the co-director of the Segal Design Institute and for the last seven years, he has also directed McCormick’s well-known freshman design course, Design Thinking and Communication, formerly Engineering Design and Communication.

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Stacy Benjamin Northwestern University

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Stacy Benjamin has 20 years of experience specializing in innovation strategies, ideation, and user-centered engineering design. She worked for nine years at IDEO, in the Boston and Chicago offices, where she led projects and innovation workshops across a broad range of industries including medical, business, industrial, and consumer products.

Stacy currently directs the Segal Design Certificate program at Northwestern University and she is a member of the Executive Committee for the Segal Education Council. Stacy is the lead instructor of the Interdisciplinary Design Projects sequence where students work on real projects with real clients in a learn-by-doing format in an atmosphere similar to a small design firm. In addition to design methods, the teaching team also provides contextual training in professional communication and in effective team dynamic strategies and tools.

Stacy’s consulting work is primarily focused on innovation strategy. She works with clients to identify new opportunities and to develop roadmaps and implementation plans to achieve them. She also works alongside client teams to build their capabilities and she designs and facilitates ideation workshops.

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Trevor Harty Northwestern University

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Trevor is an undergraduate psychology major with a minor in business institutions and a certificate in marketing. Over the course of his Northwestern career he has conducted research for and served as a coauthor on numerous psychology and other social science studies.

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Penny L. Hirsch Northwestern University

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Penny L. Hirsch, Professor of Instruction and Associate Director of the Cook Family Writing Program at Northwestern University, teaches classes in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science. She was Northwestern’s first Charles Deering McCormick University Distinguished Lecturer and played a key role in developing Design Thinking and Communication (formerly Engineering Design and Communication), a course co-taught by faculty from engineering and writing in which all first-year engineering students work on real design projects for real clients.

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BACKGROUND Research studies have shown the value of communities of practice to the workplace (Lave and Wenger, 1981) and the larger importance of community to civic engagement (Putnam, 2000). Current literature also suggests that tomorrow’s engineers, and everyone in the workplace, will need to function effectively on multidisciplinary teams, be proficient communicators in an increasingly complex world, and think creatively and critically (e.g. Galloway, 2007). This helps explain why our university sees design as a hallmark of education for everyone, and also, like many universities, emphasizes the importance of developing a diverse and fully inclusive community.

RESEARCH QUESTIONS As faculty in design education, we wonder whether interdisciplinary design opportunities can help students work across academic silos and feel connected to a larger community. Currently, our school requires first-year engineers to take a project-based, interdisciplinary design course; offers a design certificate program to all interested undergraduate students; and recently developed a design course specifically for non-engineers. In addition, our Design for America (DFA) chapter attracts students from across the university and is growing steadily. Do these cross-school design initiatives help prepare students to be effective problem solvers in their careers? Do they promote campus community and student well-being? Should they be expanded? Building on previous research (Del Torto, et al., 2015), this paper (a work in progress) reports on our current efforts to answer these questions.

METHODS We interviewed five design faculty about the intended benefits of two interdisciplinary programs, and sent surveys to 160 alumni of the certificate program and to 95 students/alumni in DFA. Surveys asked about benefits of the programs, preparation for the workplace, and effect on perceptions of community. Thirty-five alumni of the certificate program have responded (21 males, 14 females), and five have been interviewed. DFA surveys were mailed this fall and responses are just arriving.

PRELIMINARY FINDINGS On the one hand, quantitative and qualitative analysis suggest that the interdisciplinary undergraduate design programs are reaching their goals and fostering diversity. The certificate program has grown from one engineering student in 2004 to 32 students from 18 majors in 4 schools in 2013-14. A recent project team included students from manufacturing engineering, biomedical engineering, applied math, and Asian studies. This interdisciplinary composition encourages students to look at challenges and solutions from multiple perspectives and see the value of diversity for problem-solving. On the other hand, interviews suggest the effect of these experiences on perceived connection to campus community as a whole is minimal. Rather, comments support previous research about students prioritizing smaller aggregates (e.g. clubs, residence halls) that satisfy their need for community (Del Torto, et al., 2015).

NEXT STEPS More research is needed to better understand whether interdisciplinary design programs can support university efforts to encourage creativity through “design thinking for all” while simultaneously creating greater student satisfaction and more social capital. Toward this end, we will be analyzing more survey responses and conducting additional interviews with alumni, faculty, and employers.

REFERENCES Del Torto, L., Hirsch, P., Contreras, X., Harty, T., & Mueller, B., (April 18, 2015). "Students' Insights about Community on Campus: Definitions, Expectations, and Perceptions.” American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. Chicago, IL. Galloway, P. (2007). The 21st-Century engineer: A proposal for engineering education reform. Reston, VA: ASCE Press. Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, England: Cambridge UP. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Del Torto, L. M., & Ankenman, B., & Benjamin, S., & Harty, T., & Hirsch, P. L. (2016, June), Exploring Interdisciplinary Design in Relation to Workplace Success and Campus Community Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26849

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