Designing Solutions

Engineering students tackle and solve problems that challenge their real-life clients every day.

by Daniel Cattau

A stranger entering the Sheridan Road entrance of the glassy, “green-friendly” Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center quickly realizes that the ivory tower has gone the way of the manual typewriter.

What truly sets the six-story building apart from other academic buildings is more than its high proportion of natural light and three-story atrium. It’s the worker bee activity in the shop room, one floor below street level but easily visible from the main floor.

Students wearing goggles operate lathes, milling machines, band saws and drill presses. They use hand tools, precision knives and glue guns. They measure, cut, shape, puncture and hammer raw materials into products designed to have real-world usefulness for clients, often those with disabilities.

In a scene right out of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, a male student is casting a fishing pole in the café area overlooking the shop floor. Is he getting an early jump on his summer vacation?

No, he’s doing what an engineer does best, trying to solve a problem to help people. In this case the client is an avid bass fisherman who wants to continue the sport after losing both arms in an accident. And the student is fishing for the right approach.

How do you adapt the rod and reel to someone who won’t feel the tug of the fish? Would it be better to fish with or without prosthetic arms? Can feet be used instead of hands for casting and reeling?

Students at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science learn technical skills through such projects. But from freshman year on they also get to understand what it’s like to be an engineer by writing reports and proposals, using visual communications, working in teams and empathizing with clients. These skills are all part of the first-year Engineering Design and Communication (EDC) course sequence.

Steve Jacobson, a design and prototyping specialist, works on the nitty gritty of design problems with the students and tries to keep both the students and the machines in good working order.

“The students are extremely bright. They are very, very good at answering questions. We put them into situations where there not only aren’t right answers but also we don’t know the right questions,” he says. “There is a reality to these projects — real clients and real problems.”

Adds Stacy Benjamin, senior design engineer and adviser to many projects, “We are trying not only to make good engineers but also to give them more of a social conscience.”

First-year EDC projects are frequently done in collaboration with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and other nonprofits and corporations. RIC and McCormick have developed a close working relationship in recent years, including sharing faculty and developing new design products. Projects include wheelchair seatbelts for elderly or acute-care patients, an adaptive dog leash to help stroke survivors and adaptive downhill skiing poles.

Project proposals often come from nonprofit organizations and individuals. For example, the National Lekotek Center in Evanston asked engineering students to create a Sensamat — a toy consisting of a large piece of soft Velcro and adjoining shapes that feature various textures for tactile stimulation — for children with autism.

Another RIC project involved a young woman who lost both of her arms after contracting bacterial meningitis. Fitted with prostheses, she wanted a way to keep her long hair in a ponytail while playing volleyball. Northwestern students helped design a loop device allowing her to do the ponytail herself.

Engineering students also helped the RIC Cubs, a wheelchair softball team sponsored by the Chicago Cubs, get to first base faster and hit the ball harder. Players, who use a 16-inch softball, would find themselves swirling around too much while batting. The students developed removable blocks to stabilize the wheelchairs. This innovation helped the RIC Cubs win a national title.

“People with disabilities have needs, and engineers love solving problems,” says Elliot Roth (FSM82, GFSM85), senior vice president and medical director at RIC. “And, by golly, we’ve put the two together.”

Engineers Study Challenges, Identify Opportunities

A glass bridge connects the venerable and fortress-like Technological Institute to the sleek and modern Design Center, but in reality, bridges are being built in every direction, across disciplines and between academia and the outside world to help better train tomorrow’s engineers.

Students, faculty and administrators are asking some important basic questions: What does it mean to be an engineer in today’s global marketplace? What new skills do engineers need to succeed? Technical skills are a given, but what about ethics?

“Students are demanding an engineering education that moves beyond abstract modeling and makes a strong connection to society,” says Bruce M. Kramer, acting director of the division of engineering education and centers at the National Science Foundation. “This adds an important dimension to the education of engineers without sacrificing any of the rigor of the underlying fundamentals.”

Engineering schools are battling a declining interest in science and math and refuting stereotypes about what engineers actually do. Many are starting community-oriented programs to make engineering more visible.

Kramer adds that engineering schools want “to make engineering careers attractive to a broader segment of the population than traditionally has been attracted to them, including women and underrepresented minorities.”

McCormick Dean Julio Ottino says, “Today’s engineering graduates are just as likely to build careers in the service industries — health, consulting, law, business, information technology — as in traditional engineering manufacturing jobs.

“They must have a broad educational background that allows them to move between a variety of careers and disciplines — and we must change our curriculum accordingly. … Given opportunities to think beyond algorithms and equations, they study challenges and identify opportunities. They create, rather than simply absorb, knowledge.”

Part of that broad educational background includes EDC, launched as a pilot program in 1996 and now a required two-quarter sequence of courses for all engineering students their freshman year. Part of Engineering First — which introduces students to engineering concepts in order to do design — the courses are designed and taught by faculty from both the engineering school and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. The Writing Program faculty offer skills to help engineers to communicate effectively.

Penny Hirsch (G68, 80), EDC core faculty co-chair and associate director of the Writing Program, refers to EDC’s interdisciplinary, user-centered process as “the creative solving of ill-defined problems.”

Hirsch says teaching design and teaching writing are similar. Both involve brainstorming and concept generation, audience or user testing, iteration and striving for constant improvement. “When you’re teaching writing, you’re teaching a type of design,” she says.

“The EDC program gives students a unique hands-on experience in engineering,” says Mallory Hammock, a sophomore chemical engineering major from Centennial, Colo. “EDC also gives us the unique opportunity to ask, ‘Could I do this for the rest of my life?’ And if the answer is yes, then you know you’re heading down the right career path.”

As a first-year student Hammock worked on Team Super Bubble, a project to “develop bubble gums that blow larger bubbles than those currently on the market,” according to the team’s June 2006 report. The trick is to come up with consistent testing procedures for a bubble gum–blowing machine and for “live” human testers.

“Working with the Super Bubble project was especially insightful,” says Hammock, “because it allowed me to work with a project that was specific to my field of study, applying both my knowledge of chemistry and my engineering skills to solve a real-world problem.”  

EDC is part of Northwestern’s Institute for Design Engineering and Applications, which aims to educate world-class design engineers by combining creativity with engineering rigor, working in cross-disciplinary teams and communicating effectively to diverse audiences. It also helps students create engineering design portfolios that reflect on their undergraduate work and showcase their abilities.

As the students progress as undergraduates, the engineering and design problems presented by IDEA become more complex, but the rewards are greater. “As the students get more engineering depth,” says Ed Colgate, IDEA director and professor of mechanical engineering, “we can do more creative things with design.”

For instance, the McCormick-sponsored Engineers for a Sustainable World’s Solar Recharge team worked on a project in the isolated village of Santo Domingo, Panama, to help small-scale ranchers protect their cattle from wild animal attacks.

The village does not have electric lines, but with help from a local nonprofit, ranchers deployed electric fencing systems powered by car batteries. However, the batteries must be recharged in Panama City, a costly and time-consuming process for the ranchers. The Northwestern team is designing and will help implement solar power systems for the ranchers.

These projects, like many others, push the students well beyond their own comfort zones. High-achieving students have a familiar set of skills that “don’t always work in the world of ambiguity,” says Ann McKenna, IDEA’s associate director of design education. “Students are being asked to be engineers to solve a problem, not do an artificial class project.”

McKenna is proud of the engineering design portfolios, which showcase the students’ design projects and include a reflective essay. McKenna says this involves “taking what you’ve done and reflecting on it, asking yourself where you want to go.”

These practical design projects and experiences are part of a bigger plan.

“From my perspective, IDEA is much less about ‘real-world’ experience and much more about learning to think in a certain way,” says Colgate. “Engineering is this oddball discipline that doesn’t seem to claim its own intellectual high ground. Instead, it seems like a mongrel: part science with its emphasis on analytical thought, part pure art with its emphasis on creative thought, part business with its emphasis on working in the real world. … The engineer we wish to educate will be steeped in and skilled at the basic sciences and mathematics but will willingly embrace a larger context and work effectively within that context.”

Engineering Enables Hope for Disabled

RIC medical director Elliot Roth takes a visitor on a tour of the 18-story institute located amid other Northwestern buildings in downtown Chicago. The RIC is a hospital, a rehab center, a home for several specialized clinics, a collection of community outreach programs and an advanced medical research center rolled into one building.

“A lot of the research at RIC is engineering research applied to people with disabilities,” says Roth, Paul B. Magnuson Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and chair of the department at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “We apply engineering principles to the study of movement of people with disabilities.”

Well beyond the work with softball teams and ponytails, Northwestern’s collaboration between engineering and medical research is beginning to offer devices that will help patients for years to come.

For instance, the NÜberwalker project, which has been developed by successive teams of IDEA students since 2003, recently received the da Vinci Award from the Michigan Chapter of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society for innovations in helping people with disabilities.

The NÜberwalker, a project developed with RIC and supported by a federal grant from the U.S. National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, is a body-weight supported treadmill training system that can be used with in-home rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injuries or other gait disabilities. Its frame is placed over the treadmill and supports the body weight through a system of bungee cords tensioned by a motor.

Another federally funded joint project with the RIC involves developing a finger trainer for stroke survivors and other patients. Therapy allows patients to develop gross motor skills, but many want to redevelop typing, writing and sewing skills. Therapists need a device that stroke survivors can use at home to continue strengthening their fingers between therapy sessions.

“A large number of stroke patients regain gross hand control but have no good program or equipment to help them regain individual digitations and finer motor control,” says Bob Shaw (McC70, KSM81), an adviser to the finger trainer team who co-owned a medical device company for 29 years. “The aim is to allow the millions of stroke patients to regain use of a keyboard in a ‘normal’ fashion.”

He hopes to have a prototype ready for patient testing in the current academic year.

NÜberwalkers and finger trainers and all the other joint projects between McCormick and RIC leave even close observers amazed at the progress and breathless in anticipation of what might come next. But one thing is clear: The relationships that have been built between the students and rehabilitation clients are already paying dividends. The students learned to listen to the clients during the design process and go back to the drawing board to improve the products to better meet client needs.

No one is more surprised by these results than Roth. “Frankly, all I thought I was doing was getting them to think about rehabilitation and disability,” says Roth. The practical products developed as a result of this collaboration are an unintended benefit for everyone.

“And it’s shown how much good engineers value listening to their clients,” says Roth. “Only we call them patients.”

Dan Cattau is a Chicago-area freelance writer.

Tell us what you think. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail the editors at