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Integrating Technical, Social, And Aesthetic Analysis In The Product Design Studio: A Case Study And Model For A New Liberal Education For Engineers

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2008 Annual Conference & Exposition


Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Publication Date

June 22, 2008

Start Date

June 22, 2008

End Date

June 25, 2008



Conference Session

Beyond Individual Ethics: Engineering in Context

Tagged Division

Liberal Education

Page Count


Page Numbers

13.767.1 - 13.767.16



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Paper Authors


Dean Nieusma Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Orcid 16x16

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Dean Nieusma’s research and teaching focus on interdisciplinary design collaboration and the expertise that enables it. With a BS in mechanical engineering and another in general studies and a PhD in interdisciplinary social sciences, Dean has worked as a member of design teams in contexts as diverse as the U.S. and European automotive industries; Sri Lanka’s renewable energy sector; and STS, engineering, and design curriculum planning. He teaches across Rensselaer’s Product Design and Innovation studio sequence, including courses in industrial design, entrepreneurship and design, and sustainability design.

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NOTE: The first page of text has been automatically extracted and included below in lieu of an abstract

Integrating Technical, Social, and Aesthetic Analysis in the Product Design Studio: A Case Study and Model for a New Liberal Education for Engineers


This paper investigates one initiative to bring technical, social, and aesthetic analyses together in the same curriculum and even in the same classroom. Rensselaer’s Product Design and Innovation (PDI) program was initiated in 1999 in an effort to integrate engineering, STS, and arts/architecture pedagogy within a single program. PDI students typically receive a dual-degree (usually in STS and engineering), and the curriculum is built upon a foundation of interdisciplinary design studios, where technical, social, and aesthetic concerns are dealt with simultaneously by faculty representing disciplines in engineering, STS, and arts/architecture. The paper reviews the PDI curricular structure as well as pedagogical experimentation surrounding PDI studios, highlighting the role of theoretical contributions from STS and how these are integrated into product design pedagogy. While the PDI program has been remarkably successful in attracting students, no systematic study has been done of the underlying approach of the program’s pedagogy or the effectiveness of integrating STS and aesthetics insights into the students’ design process. Based on interviews with faculty and students and a review of compiled student feedback, this paper provides a first-round description of the program’s underlying approach and evaluates the program’s success in creating a new, liberal engineering design education. It also assesses institutional challenges and how they impact the PDI program’s character and effectiveness. Ultimately, the paper shows how the design studio can be structured to be an ideal setting for genuinely liberal engineering education, because, under the right conditions, it allows integration of diverse disciplinary approaches in a way that is both pedagogically coherent and immediately relevant to students’ experiences.


[S]ystemic engineering reform, and its [traditional] curricular and programmatic forms…, will only have limited success until the relationship between engineers’ identity and knowledge and method is fully addressed, and an integration of the liberal arts—particularly those areas dealing with the relationship between engineering and culture and politics—takes place.1

This paper analyzes Rensselaer’s Product Design and Innovation (PDI) program as a potential model for a new liberal education for engineering students that achieves the high level of integration of technical and liberal arts approaches. The PDI program entails a set of interdisciplinary, undergraduate courses and degree options that span engineering, the humanities and social sciences (H&SS), design disciplines, and management. Initiated in the mid-1990s, PDI was motivated primarily by the desires 1) to combine the strengths of various disciplinary approaches to social problem solving and 2) to revamp undergraduate engineering curricula by including systematic analysis of the social context of engineering problems. By being integrative, interdisciplinary, and systematically attentive to the social context of engineering work, PDI addresses fundamental shortcomings in the H&SS-electives model of traditional engineering curricula, where liberal arts content is “elected” by students idiosyncratically and is

Nieusma, D. (2008, June), Integrating Technical, Social, And Aesthetic Analysis In The Product Design Studio: A Case Study And Model For A New Liberal Education For Engineers Paper presented at 2008 Annual Conference & Exposition, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 10.18260/1-2--4086

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