Sharing design, in all its forms

Massive fair highlights hundreds of great ideas that emerged in courses at SEAS this year

Students from more than a dozen courses presented their projects at the SEAS Design Fair on May 1.


Gye Hyun Baek '13 and Madalina Persu '13 exhibit their ES 50 project with course assistant Leonard Kogos '12, right. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

Student presenters were standing proudly by a large poster that detailed the mitotic process in flatworms, when a sudden roar accompanied the appearance of a seemingly self-propelled four-wheeled vehicle.

Its owners, Gye Hyun Baek ’13 and Madalina Persu ’13, apologetically followed close behind, revealing that its source of power was in fact a handheld laser pointer.

With the first annual Design Fair at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in full swing, the Maxwell Dworkin building on May 1 was a hive of activity, surprises, and a wealth of great ideas that have emerged at SEAS throughout the past academic year.

The fair featured final projects from more than a dozen courses in engineering, applied mathematics, and computer science.

Students in ES 50, Introduction to Electrical Engineering, and ES 51, Computer-Aided Machine Design, designed and built more than 30 diverse projects, including many small vehicles that roamed the display tables and floors, a hovering quadrotor helicopter, a playable infra-red harp, adevice that helps a child test the safety of drinking water, a pair of gloves wired with pressure sensors to enable typing without a keyboard(with optional encryption), and a tube amplifier for an electric guitar.

Nearby, computer scientists in CS 179, Design of Useable Interactive Systems, talked about the rigorous testing process they had completed during the semester while perfecting their user interfaces. Jack Greenberg '13, for example, created a tactile content map for course materials that helps teachers and students confer about their interests and the organizational structure of a course. Greenberg and his teammates, Neal Wu '14 and Carl Gao '15, incorporated feedback from four rounds of user testing.


Neal Wu '14 and Jack Greenberg '13 worked with Carl Gao '15 (not pictured) on ClassGraph, a user interface that presents course materials in a conceptual web and links them to outside resources. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

Although building physical devices is an essential part of a SEAS education, the fair may have served as a reminder that design involves far more than the physical prototype.

"Design goes much deeper than most people think," said Anas Chalah, Director of the Undergraduate Teaching Labs, who helped organize the Design Fair.

"The minute you say 'design,' people think about devices—designing something that you can hold in your hand," he explained. "If you belong to that school, that's fine, but let's convert you."

Design at SEAS encompasses everything from the identification and qualitative analysis of a real-world problem, through free ideation and brainstorming, the development and articulation of a coherent idea, the physical prototyping and testing, the quantitative analysis of competing solutions, and the process of sharing a creative piece of work with the public.

Along the way, students learn to observe the world as scientists, to work as a team, and to connect the principles of engineering to the breadth of ideas they encounter in their other liberal-arts courses.

Michaela Tracy ’13, an applied math concentrator who is pursuing music as a secondary field, created a project for AM 120, Applicable Linear Algebra, that combined both of her interests.

Inspired by modern, experimental composers like John Cage who used analytical tools—or simple chance—to create entire works of music, Tracy used mathematical principles to explore the elements of musical style.

“What I wanted to do was use music of another time and see if I could recreate it... [and to see] if statistics could provide an example of baroque harmony, which it did! My project uses the data from the timing between events to compose entire works,” Tracy said.

Upstairs, students from AM 207, Stochastic Optimization, showed off their models of tornado frequency and climate, crowd patterns in shopping malls, and even strategies for defeating an opposing team in foosball.

Other students approached their projects with a social goal. Rabeea Ahmed ’14 and Zamyla Chan ’14, students in CS 171 (Visualization), used numerical tools to make an interactive, visual representation titled “The Socioeconomics of Water” that displayed levels of water consumption and availability in several Asian and South American countries.

Ahmed explained, “You can choose what you want to display on each of the two axes. So I can say ‘plot population’ for South America, and you can see that Brazil has the largest population for South America. And then it can show you the GDP trends over time. You can then go deeper and plot interesting data such as the freshwater withdrawal per capita, and it’s clear that freshwater per capita is extremely variable [across countries]. You can look at countries that are clearly outliers. You can also use the tool to view freshwater resources.”

Ahmed and Chan envision their creation not as an invention to be simply consumed and enjoyed by curious students, but as a tool that could potentially be useful to policymakers, researchers, and more.

“We aim to make it easy for people to get the data that they want and see different dimensions of the data," said Ahmed. "This allows others to then think about the non-numerical (historical, geographic) factors causing these trends.”


SEAS design staff demonstrated a state-of-the-art 3D printer from the undergraduate teaching labs. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

The Design Fair took over four floors of Maxwell Dworkin, with students presenting in three shifts and taking turns exploring the labyrinth of posters, laser shows, and laptops.

"One of the great aspects of the fair is that the students get to learn from each other by seeing what they have done," said Michael Mitzenmacher, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and Area Dean for Computer Science, who helped organize the fair. "They have the chance to see the broad spectrum of work going on at SEAS, and talk with each other about what they have accomplished. It changes their work from an individual or small-group activity to a community activity."

"We know that adding social aspects to students' work makes their projects more fun," he added. "And when they're having fun, they work hard. That's evident here today."

Rocking the Fair

Dominic Ferrante '15 (225px)

Dominic Ferrante '15, a student in ES 50, built a tube amplifier for his electric guitar. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

Playing in the Sandbox

Two weeks prior to the SEAS Design Fair, the community enjoyed presentations from the course ES 20, How To Create Things and Have Them Matter, co-taught by David Edwards, Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Biomedical Engineering, and Beth Altringer, a Visiting Lecturer on Engineering Sciences at SEAS.

The course offers a sandbox-like environment, where students learn to develop a hint of an idea into a possible product, while improving their skills in persuasive writing and public speaking.

"This is very much a blue-sky course," said Altringer. "The ideas are improbable in some ways."

One group of students in ES 20 imagined a product that would motivate physical therapy patients to continue making progress between sessions. Another project involved a GPS-tagged bracelet that would help strangers meet each other in public, and another project would send custom smells to remote friends.

Edwards' own work serves as a model for that type of thinking. His recent inventions include edible packaging and breathable chocolate. Journalists occasionally refer to him as a mad scientist.

"It's not a place to harness that in," said Altringer. "It's about being exploratory."

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