“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

Last January, I joined a special course called Engineering for Humanity which was co-taught by an anthropology and a design professor from Olin College of Engineering. I worked with a group of students and faculty at Fulbright University Vietnam to create a project that could potentially improve an elderly person’s life.

The class components

The Engineering for Humanity class had four main components: (1) Observations, (2) Principles, (3) Ideas, and (4) Experiments. These components acted as a roadmap to guide us through a process of creating a product of choice. Our product was a special chair to help enhance elderly people’s mobility.

    1. Observations – Story of a wallet: Our first exercise was to find out as much as possible about a person through their phone or wallet. We had to watch them using their item, investigate the item ourselves, and then ask them questions about their item. It was weird, and awkward, and hard. But it was also pretty cool.
    1. Mrs Nga’s principles: Our community partner was Mrs. Nga. We asked her a bunch of questions and observed her in her house while she carried on with her daily routine. Questions such as ‘What matters to you most?’, ‘What do you usually do?’ or ‘Is there any problem for you going about your daily routine?’ helped us learn many things about her life philosophies and principles.
    1. Ideas – Let’s be creative: We were in the middle of brainstorming ideas. We already knew that we wanted to help her with mobility issues so that she could interact better with people outside her house; this was one of her main needs. Yet, we didn’t know how to do that. There were many ideas. They ranged from practical ones like a crane, a chair, a knee band; to wildly creative ones like covering up her stairs to make it less slippery, or making a policy to have chairs scattered along the path from her house to the grocery store. We stood by the whiteboard near the big circle, and we were racking our brains while joking childishly.
  1. Experiments – Trials and errors: We went around the city trying to finish the chair after going through a long phase to get the chair we wanted. We looked through lots of pictures of chairs with Mrs. Nga and asked how she felt about each one. We tried to make a cardboard chair so that Mrs. Nga could feel how high/low she would like it to be. We even made tiny chairs from papers and fabric so that we could have a better understanding of what our design would be; etc. Eventually, that chair we and Mrs. Nga loved slowly took form in front of our eyes.

The Compass

The process that we went through in class was not random; it was guided by a compass – the Innovator’s Compass created by Ela Ben-Ur *. The Compass taught us that the heart of any design process should be the users. The first step of design should be to understand the users and their needs; only then, we can find a way to address them. No design process is done in one step; a series of experiment must be conducted so that the product can be refined through trials and errors.

Many things in life, generally, can be guided using that compass. When we encounter a problem and don’t know which way to go forward, we can start by trying to learn more about it. By understanding its root cause, we have different ideas of how to address the problem. Then, by testing out our solutions, we can solve it.

Similar to the compass in designing, the compass in life takes time to master. The first stage of getting to know something or someone is usually the longest. Yet, without this stage, we will not have the right foundation to build our ideas on.

The principle

Another important lesson I took away from this class is that we welcome failures. We tried, and failed, and tried again, and failed even faster. But it’s okay. Sometimes it is better to just try and fail rather than letting the fear of failure hold us back. Who knows what great achievements we are destined to create without taking that first step to try.

Final thoughts

I always thought that errors were failures and that I needed to do everything as perfectly as possible. It was no surprise that I usually ended up not doing anything because I either was afraid or could not find a perfect solution in one go. Through this course, I realize that there is no perfect solution without making any mistakes. The most important thing is to have an idea so that I can test its feasibility. Without knowing where I go wrong, I cannot make it right.

I always thought designing was for the experienced ones – those selected few who are gifted to create new things. I thought I was not those people for I am conventional and systematic. Yet, I succeeded designing an actual product. Maybe designing is, afterall, not a task only for the privileged ones.

Yes. If one never tries, one never knows. If I had not conjured all my courage to apply for this class, I would not have had the chance to experience different ways this class had changed my outlook on life. Who would have thought that an Engineering for Humanity class would teach me so much about myself.

(*) innovatorscompass.org – Ela Ben-Ur

Trang Quach

Student of Co-Design Year