Across the country, college engineering students are learning to work in teams, reflecting the realities of their future workplaces. Many also test and practice their developing skills on projects to benefit people in developing countries, either through class or campus chapters of organizations like Engineers Without Borders. At Stanford University, a multidisciplinary group of professors is gearing up to begin a second decade of a class that brings together students who are not just STEM majors, but also business, journalism, liberal arts students, and others, with the goal of developing a product to help some of the world’s poor.
“This course requires teams to be diverse,” says David Beach, a mechanical engineering professor. “We have business, biology, electrical engineering, even political science [students], for example. And faculty must be from two or more different departments.”
Design for Extreme Affordability is a five-month course where students learn to design a product, prototype it, and build it. They market it to organizations or vendors already working in developing countries that partner with the school, and, if successful, travel overseas to develop or test it on site.
The class emanates from the Hasso Platner Institute of Design (d.school), part of Stanford’s school of engineering, and builds on a previous class that brought together business and technical students to develop and market a product prototype. The current class, over the past ten years, has sent students to 14 countries and worked on 80 project with 22 global partners, say school officials.
Mechanical engineering professor David Beach is just one faculty member teaching teams of students to design affordable products for the world’s poor.
Passed the Test
Among the success stories of the class—products that students have designed that have made it to market—include the Tripod Pump Frame, a redesigned frame that holds an irrigation pump and is cheaper than previous options. Another is a solar-powered lantern to replace dangerous kerosene models, and Miracle Brace, a device that helps infants and small children in treatment for club foot, a common cause of disability in developing countries.
Beach, who has been teaching mechanical engineering for 44 years, acknowledges the course and its structure can be daunting. “It’s time consuming, but they know what they signed up for,” he says. Still, demand for the course is high and faculty spends two weeks before Thanksgiving break winnowing the candidates.
Students are thrown into the fray on their first day’s oral hygiene exercise, when they are asked to figure out how someone else can accomplish what most of us do by simply brushing our teeth. “There’s an amazing amount of ideas,” says Beach, adding that it also introduces students to the concept of empathy. It is a word on which the course is founded. “People are more different than you think they are,” says Beach.
The class’s “empathy module” follows, “to understand people and human issues to whom the designer might be of service,” says Beach. The three-week module requires teams to brainstorm, design and build prototypes of a product working with service co-ops and service and maintenance staff at the university. For instance, service people and mechanics in the vehicle shop serve as a review board to determine product feasibility. “It’s a three-week microcosm of the whole course,” says Beach.
Students are then drawn into international teams, chosen by faculty after observing them at work in their initial assignments. A wide range of skills and personalities are represented to assure the teams can attack a problem from multiple viewpoints.
Students from across STEM, business, and other disciplines bring diversity to team building and product design.
“There’s strength through diversity in the groups,” says Beach. “The goals are to provide a great educational experience and a great outcome for the partner. We pay attention to what students tell us about their preferences,” but picking teams is still “amazingly complex,” he adds.
If there’s one thing the course focuses on, it is empathy, not only for the ultimate user or consumer, but for the vendor or partner organization. The school vets organizations that are interested in working with the program, and teams work them during the duration of the course. Teams must produce a “point of view” statement that captures fundamental information, such as the mission of the partner organization, and constraints for the user and the organization.
“It’s about understanding people who might need solutions to problems,” says Beach. “It’s to try and create a point of view.”
Students are evaluated throughout the course; design reviews happen every two weeks but they are judged on all parameters, from design to business plans. At the end of the course, the projects are displayed in a trade-show format complete with partner organizations.
“Ultimately we consider the outcome to be a success if a prototype is to the level where it can be tested,” says Beach. “Machine function, a good business plan and a prototype are graded.”
But the ultimate object is to get the product produced and to market, which is why the school’s partner organizations are so important: they already are on the ground and working. “They can do what Stanford cannot do, like distribute,” notes Beach.
Products are designed to be affordable. The team that developed the pump frame, for instance, added three dollars to the cost of a $15 pump as an alternative to a factory-installed metal frame that doubled the cost of the pump. In 2008, it became the biggest selling pump in Myanmar, according to the school.
The school provides modest sums for students to develop their projects, and airfare to where their products are to be used. Funding is also available for students wishing to continue development during the summer after the semester ends. Beach says this year six projects received $10,000 to continue work. For those who plan further work or are aiming to start their own company, Stanford’s business school offers year-long grants for extended development.
This course requires teams to be diverse. We have business, biology, electrical engineering, even political science students.
Prof. David Beach, Stanford University