March 8, 2019

Cease the gap between Engineering and Social Sciences

March 8, 2019

“We are very happy to say that, after consultation with Olin, you have been selected to participate in the course. Congratulations!”

That was what written on the welcoming email that we received from this special course named ‘Engineering for Humanity”.

This course is special because there have not been many cases like this where Co-Designers had to fight hard for seats in a class. Additionally, apart from this course, there is no other course in Fulbright so far that only lasts for less than a week.

Five Co-Designers, the chosen ones, came to class with excitement and restlessness. None of us knew what we were going to do, or how we would work in the next few days.

With five professors from Fulbright, we started off our course with an Introduction. We met Ela and Caitrin – the two professors from Olin College of Engineering who led this class, on Monday afternoon.

The whole class were then divided into two teams. We were also introduced to a “Design Thinking” tool named The Innovators’ Compass, which was designed and developed by professor Ela and is becoming more and more popular among designing and engineering community.

The next days were dedicated for our projects. Partnering with us were two community partners, Mr. Thu and Mrs. Nga, two elders living in Ho Chi Minh City.

Our job was to create “something” that would assist these community partners in their daily life. The goal was very clear, and yet the way there was long and winding.

The first step we took was to Observe. We noted down every single characteristic of our community partners. We also asked various questions to better understand their families, their jobs, their life and their lifestyle.

We then shadowed them to watch them in different scenarios such as in workplace, in some social interactions, and even in their family. Those findings helped us found our initial observations and verdicts.

The next step was to Understand to answer the question of “What are important to the partners?”. During this, the two groups tried to generalize those observations and verdicts into Principles.

This step was very critical as it became the premise for every idea later. Using the Principles as the foundation, we generated a long list of ideas. At the end of this phase, we picked out three best ideas to consult with the partners.

Our team’s partner was Mr. Nguyen Dac Thu. He has no health-related problems and can still support himself financially. Even at 78 years of age, he possesses an incredible memory.

He shared that what he wants the most in his life is to be close to his sons and grandchildren, who are currently living in the United States and Australia. Thus, Family was the key word that we chose for Mr. Thu.

After running our ideas through him, we decided on the final product: a  scrapbook named “The adventurous adventure of Mr. Nguyen Dac Thu.”

The next step, then, was to create prototypes and pilot them to receive feedbacks. We repeated this step many times to further refine our product idea even more.

Our product, the scrapbook, is a compilation of pictures and stories about Mr. Thu’s adventures from his childhood days until now. Quotes that resonate with his memories are also features in the book; those are the words that he has been treasuring in his mind.

This scrapbook, thus, serves various purposes. It not only is a collection of memories, but also motivates him to take on new adventures in the future.  

Each product we developed in this class was tailored to our partner’s specific needs. Whereas our team developed the scrapbook for Mr. Thu, the other team created another product for our second community partner, Mrs. Nga.

The product they chose to design for Mrs. Nga was a special chair because of her herniated disc problem, which caused her inability to stand for a long period of time.

The chair is foldable, and is light enough for Mrs. Nga to carry around and even use as a backpack. The team hopes that the chair can become Mrs. Nga’s travel partner.

This course serves two purposes: one is the Engineering purpose, and the other is the Humanity purpose. That was why we also spent half of our time learning more about the aging population in Vietnam.  

Ela and Caitrin introduced us to the Empathy Activity where we tried out different tools that simulated the common health problems among elderly people.

This activity encouraged us to put ourselves in the shoes of old people to understand the difficulties they faced everyday. We also realized how lucky we were to have a healthy body to appreciate it more.

This same course lasts for 15 weeks in Olin College of Engineering, but when we did it this time at Fulbright, it was compressed to fit within a week.

The workload, thus, was unbelievably huge for all of us. In spite of all the pressure and tension, when we looked back on what we had gone through, we knew every effort we made paid off.

We gained for ourselves lots of lessons. They are not only the lessons on technical skills, but also the lessons on life, on how to care about  and do good for our community. Without the Humanity side, Engineering serves no purpose.  

Ly Minh Tu

Student of Co-Design Year

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