SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Collaboration in Prototyping New Interdisciplinary Team-Based Curriculum
- Andrew Holmes '19, Product Definition Engineer - Onshape at PTC
Soft skills are critical to technically-oriented education
The six week long program was a prototype of sorts for the new interdisciplinary, team-based engineering school, a way to test their teaching methodologies and practices before the school’s first semester that fall. During those six weeks students would work in teams to understand a problem that older adults face, brainstorm ways of solving that problem, and design and build a prototype. Along the way, professors with expertise in mechanical engineering, electronic controls, and industrial design would offer their expertise in these fields to give students a deeper dive into the technical components of the project.
Along with the four Olin students, we often found ourselves stepping in with impromptu lectures and activities that we’d create to help students develop skills around teaming, thinking in a user-oriented mindset, and planning how they would reach their objectives. These were soft skills that Olin really helps students develop through courses like Engineering for Humanity (E4H) where I learned to work as a team on a challenging design problem. In Shenzhen I even shared the entire design process I went through in E4H, where my team and I designed an attachment for an older woman’s wheelchair that enabled her to bring heavy groceries home and remove them from her chair independently. I think this really helped teams see the light at the end of the tunnel and build the motivation to push forward at the start of the course, as so many of them were technically oriented and wanted to skip past the brainstorming and research phase to get right to building. My favorite moment in the program however would have to be when we helped a frustrated team of students at the start of the project get back on track to be one of the most positive, successful teams in the whole program. They wanted to make something to help people feel less lonely, but didn’t know where to start after their minimal user interaction. Bit by bit we went through the Innovator’s Compass exercise that I learned in E4H, capturing observations for their users, condensing those into the core principles of their project and problem area, and then using those principles to brainstorm ideas and create a game plan for what to do next. We focused on capturing observations of post-its of ANYTHING they saw, heard, or felt from the trip (another E4H tactic!), which helped them to escape the mental blocker of “solving loneliness” and focus first on understanding it. By the time they were brainstorming and sharing ideas back and forth I could tell that they were back on track toward finding a unique design to prototype, and their smiles on stage at the final presentation really showed that they were happy with what they produced.
Ultimately, I was proud of the students for persevering through the unknowns of their problem areas and a brand new curriculum. At the same time, I was proud of us Olin students for being able to externalize so many of the soft skills that are so critical to our technically-oriented education, and I developed an even finer appreciation for Olin’s professors and teaching approach that I’ll be taking with me beyond graduation.
Engineering for Humanity at SUSTech China