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Blog » Transdisciplinary Sustainable Product Design

Marybeth Koon -- While teaching their respective courses, Callie Babbitt from the Golisano Institute of Sustainability (GIS) and Alex Lobos of the College of Imaging Arts and Sciences (CIAS) had both experienced the knowledge gap between the technology specialists who develop sustainable design tools and the product designers who implement these tools. This gap in knowledge becomes very prominent in the field of product design, where engineers collaborate with industrial design professionals, each skilled in their own respective areas, but not aware of the tools and practices of the other. Callie and Alex recognized the need for an integrated, holistic approach to product design that would bring together the skills of both professions to create sustainable designs, so they set out to model this in the classroom by creating an interdisciplinary curriculum, implemented in a studio course for senior-level Industrial Design and graduate-level Sustainability students.

By collaborating on this interdisciplinary model, Alex and Callie have also been able to secure some corporate support from companies such as Autodesk® and AT&T®. Their students have also presented at various conferences by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), and the E-Waste Symposium, and have won several international design competitions.

Alex and Callie felt that traditional university-level training in their fields often concentrates within disciplines without providing the holistic knowledge required in the real world. Their idea is to build an integrated knowledge base for developing sustainable designs. They aimed to bridge this gap between the skills and experiences of students from these two disciplines and help them understand the social, economic, and environmental dimensions of sustainability and product design, while teaching them how to communicate in trans-disciplinary teams. Alex and Callie also realized that their design students needed more exposure to quantitative measures so they could evaluate the impact of their decisions on a broader scale. Working with the engineering students, the design students saw their product designs subjected to the methods and tools of quantitative analysis. Conversely, engineering students had to create solutions that applied the tools and requirements of good design.

Callie with a student team
Callie with a student team

In their transdisciplinary product design studio course, Callie and Alex created a comprehensive learning environment for both engineering and design students. The course combines instructions and collaboration through instructor-to-student and peer-to-peer mediated interactions. Students work in cross-functional teams to identify a sustainable product problem and create a sustainable design solution for it. This peer-to-peer mediated collaboration provides a rapid immersion for students in each other’s discipline. In the process, they learn the tools and practices for each discipline from one another with the instructors available to reinforce and scaffold learning. At the end of the quarter, students present their 3D design solutions in three-minute videos that communicate the product to an outside audience, highlighting the design innovation and sustainability concepts. In this way, students also gain experience marketing their sustainable design solutions.

Student Design Project - 2nd Place Winner at the International E-waste Design Competition, 2011
Student Design Project – 2nd Place Winner at the International E-waste Design Competition, 2011

The course has been well-received by students from both disciplines; course evaluations showed a 42 percent improvement in understanding the dimensions of sustainability and a marked improvement in incorporating sustainability concepts in their projects. Alex and Callie also observed that their problem-based, team approach often motivated students to assume roles in their teams naturally. For example, graduate students often acted as mentors to the undergraduates, resulting in increased synergy among the team, so students were comfortable contributing to the project based on their individual skill sets.

Conducting a transdisciplinary course has not been without challenges. Students come to the class with different backgrounds in vocabulary, tools, and techniques particular to their field. Getting them to collaborate from the same frame of reference often takes some time and adjustments. But with incremental adjustments, Alex and Callie have successfully offered this course for two quarters, and are excited that the new Golisano Institute of Sustainability building will include a dedicated Sustainable Product Innovation lab to help them further develop their transdisciplinary approach. [Originally published on Teaching and Learning Services website]

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