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Learning about Design from the Lakota Nation

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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

Research on Diversification, Inclusion, and Empathy I

Tagged Division

Liberal Education/Engineering & Society

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Paper Authors


George D. Catalano Binghamton University

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Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Binghamton University
Previously member of the faculty at U.S. Military Academy and Louisiana State University.
Two time Fullbright Scholar -- Italy and Germany.

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An engineering design paradigm is developed using an enhanced morally deep world-view. The new design approach not only addresses the three challenges that were set out by the Worldwatch Institute, namely security, poverty and under-development and environmental sustainability but also one that focuses on the proper and desired goals for the engineering profession when considering the impact on the indigenous peoples throughout the world though herein the discussion is limited to Native Americans. The enhanced design paradigm borrows from the wisdom of the Lakota Nation as evidenced through an examination of the Medicine Wheel.

Engineering design is a process that creates and transforms ideas and concepts into a product definition that satisfies customer requirements. The role of the design engineer is the creation, synthesis, iteration, and presentation of design solutions. The design engineer coordinates with engineering specialists and integrates their inputs to produce the form, fit and function documentation to completely define the product. The designer has available a range of design paradigms from traditional to eco-efficient to eco-effective. The author has previously presented a design paradigm based on a morally deep worldview. (7) This design algorithm, which can be partitioned in the following four steps, is offered in the following section: • Via Positiva. The problem is identified, fully accepted and broken down into its various components using the vast array of creative and critical thinking techniques which engineers possess. What is to be solved? For whom is it to be solved? • Via Negativa. Reflection on the possible implications and consequences for any proposed solution are explored. What are the ethical considerations involved? The societal implications? The global consequences? The effects on the natural environment? • Via Creativa. The third step refers to the act of creation. The solution is chosen from a host of possibilities, implemented and then evaluated as to its effectiveness in meeting the desired goals and fulfilling the specified criteria. • Via Transfomativa. The fourth and final step asks the following questions of the engineer: Has the suffering in the world been reduced? Have the social injustices that pervade our global village been even slightly ameliorated? Has the notion of a community of interests been expanded? Is the world a kinder, gentler place borrowing from the Greek poet Aeschylus? (8)

This paradigm seemed to ignore several of the most important elements in the design process: (1) a beginning with an open mind free from pre-conceived notion, biases and prejudices; (2) an explicit challenge to the designer to consider the plight of the Earth; and (3) an exploration of the values and purposes associated both with the design and the designer.

The challenge at hand then is to bring these three new elements into the morally deep design paradigm already developed. In order to do this, I shall like to borrow from the wisdom traditions of the Lakota, and offer a new algorithm, which visually parallels the Four Directions Prayer as described in the Lakota Medicine Wheel. (9)

The Medicine Wheel is a sacred symbol used to represent all knowledge of the universe. Accordingly, the four directions represent starting with the West, Via Positiva, then proceeding to the North, Via Negativa, then the East direction, Via Creativa and finally on to the South, Via Transformativa. These four steps have been discussed previously and will not be repeated here. That which is different includes the following three steps: (1) Via Caeleum corresponds to approaching the design problem with an open mind, free from arbitrary or self imagined constraints, cognizant of the large number of possibilities and approaches; (2) Via Terra challenges the designer to consider the design in light of the Earth’s health, its present and future impacts; and (3) Via Reflexio challenges the designer to examine his/her own well being in light of the proposed solution, that is, to consider whether or not there exists a unity of the values and purpose associated with the design and the designer’s personal values.

• Step 1. Via Caeleum (Looking to the Sky). • Step 2. Via Positiva (Looking to the West). • Step 3. Via Negativa (Looking to the North). • Step 4. Via Creativa (Looking to the East). • Step 5. Via Transformativa (Looking to the South). • Step 6. Via Terra (Looking towards the Earth). • Step 7. Via Reflexio (Looking within Oneself).

Catalano, G. D. (2016, June), Learning about Design from the Lakota Nation Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.25533

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