Campus & Community

Where design, engineering meet

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GSD, SEAS will jointly offer new degree program, which their deans detail in an interview

Harvard has a new graduate degree program. The Graduate School of Design (GSD) and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) are collaborating to offer a master’s in design engineering (MDE).

The two-year program, announced today, was developed and will be jointly taught by faculty from both Schools. It is designed to give students the skills and knowledge to take a collaborative, innovative approach to problems that are large, technically deep, complex, multiscale, and open-ended. The curriculum will bridge quantitative, computational, visual, and aesthetic thinking, and will encompass engineering and design as well as economics, business, government regulation and policy, and sociology.

Applications are being accepted now for the initial cohort of students to start next fall.

In a joint interview with the Gazette, Mohsen Mostafavi, dean and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design at GSD, and Francis J. Doyle III, the John A. Paulson Dean and John A. and Elizabeth S. Armstrong Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, discussed the origins and goals of the new program.

GAZETTE: How did the program come about?

MOSTAFAVI: This program actually originated six or seven years ago as a lunchtime series called “Now?” that convened people from across Harvard who were doing interesting work. The idea behind “Now?” was to host spirited conversations that were not about dwelling on the past or predicting the future, but rather about sharing knowledge about the compelling current work that is propelling society forward. We had great people involved, including the mathematician L. Mahadevan, who went on to win a MacArthur Prize. It was fascinating to hear experts talk about subjects such as the use of mathematics to organize space and time in the context of a design school that encourages broad thinking to address spatial and environmental issues. As a result of this series, more faculty members from the GSD and SEAS got involved. We started doing some classes, joint activities, and discussing the connections between design, engineering, and entrepreneurship. We had conversations about potential graduate programs and undergraduate programs and finally we felt that focusing on a graduate program that brought our two Schools together would be very exciting.

GAZETTE: What makes this the right moment, and why is Harvard the right place to launch this program?

MOSTAFAVI: We have a great and innovative engineering program. We have one of the leading design programs in the world. Our engineering school is interested in design, and our design school is interested in the questions that affect the environment broadly, and dealing with real-world problems. So why not put these two together and think about the way in which design engineering can combine the best of imagination, creativity, and alternative approaches to making things, to come up with novel ways to respond to problems? There’s a lot of discussion around design thinking. How is design applicable to other disciplines, not just the built environment — architecture, landscape architecture, and urban planning — but everything from the organization of companies to the management of large systems?

It seems like a very good moment to capitalize on this greater understanding and enthusiasm for these topics. We notice them through the success of companies like Google and Apple and other new-media tools, utilizing the space between design and technology or design and engineering. It hasn’t quite been named; there are little manifestations, nuggets of it here and there. But for us, it’s very exciting that we are naming it.

GAZETTE: What is the profile of students whom you’re looking to attract into the program?

DOYLE: The composition and diversity of each cohort is critical. If you go back to the engineering approach or design approach from decades ago, the disciplines existed in silos. If you’re in an engineering firm, you might bring in mechanical engineers for one piece of a project, chemical engineers for another piece, computer scientists for a different piece. They really were islands, and they had to put the pieces together, and that was often a very ad hoc process. Here, we’re breaking down boundaries. That’s not to say we’re creating jacks-of-all-trades, completely cross-trained individuals, but we are preparing individuals to take a multidisciplinary mindset into a project environment and work across fields. It’s not that we’re just adding four or five disciplines and getting whatever aggregate product would come from that. We are building teams that can be more innovative in how they cross boundaries and collaborate.

This is the future of how things will be done in the real world. Students are not getting plugged into traditional silos of very narrow expertise. They’re being forced to work on teams that require multiple skills. Diversity of thinking approaches, of backgrounds, of work experiences: All of these things will lend to the ultimate success of the program.

MOSTAFAVI: Initially, we want people with backgrounds in design, architecture, and engineering. But one could imagine that people could come from a broader range of backgrounds — from urban planning, the various fields of engineering, industrial design, manufacturing, even the arts. It would be great to attract diverse and international applicants. The ideal candidate would also have some professional experience — someone who’s been out of school for at least two or three years.

Designers have the tools for visualization, computation, fabrication. Engineers have a different level of technical knowledge and capabilities. How do you bring these two cohorts to a level where they can talk to each other, where they can collaborate? That’s the exciting part of this new program, because the point is not, over a relatively short period of time, to turn designers into fully fledged engineers, or to turn engineers into fully fledged designers.

GAZETTE: What are some of the ways that this new Harvard program is distinctive?

MOSTAFAVI: One of the things that’s distinctive is that it’s genuinely, truly collaborative, from the day it starts. There are other programs wherein students would be exposed to design as a phenomenon in the context of a mechanical-engineering department, or students would be introduced to design in the context of an MFA program, but they wouldn’t be directly instructed by faculty across a range of engineering and a range of design disciplines working together to define the possibilities of their collaboration.

What’s also exciting about our program is that it is as much about the training of a certain kind of leader as it is about the relationship between our two faculties. In other words, the faculties of both schools will also be profoundly affected or influenced by these collaborations.

The cliché is that engineers are not really concerned with aesthetics; they get to design very big structures or systems, and in that process there doesn’t seem to be any kind of discussion of beauty or style or culture. It’s an interesting phenomenon because engineering is supposed to be scientific, rational, but engineering is actually full of aesthetic judgment.

DOYLE: “Collaborative” is the key word here. Some of this is in our DNA. On the SEAS side, we don’t have departments; we’re already a seamless, interdisciplinary organization. It’s in our nature to want to bring to a problem a toolkit that reaches across the spectrum of bioengineering and mechanical engineering and computer science and materials. At Harvard, this approach to collaboration is very natural.

MOSTAFAVI: At the same time, we need to transcend the limitations, if you like, or the condition of just our own collaborations. This has to [be] helpful for our Schools, but it also has to create a body of work that we are able to communicate with other people. The lens of design thinking is one such mechanism of communication with our colleagues at the Business School, or with colleagues at the Kennedy School. For example, students in this program will be dealing with health systems, or the infrastructure of cities and their organization, or water systems, or diminished resources.

DOYLE: In the last decade or two, engineering has moved toward closer collaboration with the sciences and medicine. This program represents a bridge to a new partnership, a partnership whose time has come. I think engineers will embrace this as a natural part of engineering’s own evolution.

MOSTAFAVI: The entrepreneurial dimension of the program is also important. A lot of times you have great designers who don’t articulate the value or the implications of their great ideas. I think the combination of design and engineering needs to be understood in the broader context of how future leaders will realize projects.

GAZETTE: What is the pedagogical experience of the two Schools that you’re building on to create the curriculum?

DOYLE: Engineering has always had a design element. In fact, the capstone design project is the bedrock of an engineering curriculum. Historically, it was integrative, pulling together the pieces of the curriculum into a fairly straightforward engineering project. I think what’s different in this vision is the creativity and innovation, and the aesthetic dimensions must be folded in. We have a generation of students who have this passion for things like bringing together synthesis elements, engineering elements, the aesthetic elements, and fusing them in an innovative way.

Harvard is the perfect place for this, because we are a liberal arts institution where we have these wonderful gems of engineering and design and the other professional Schools embedded in the campus. Our students are learning about the world and the context for which their training is preparing them.

For example, the ES96 problem-solving and design project course at SEAS has had this flavor of creativity fused with the engineering-design process. Students address some very interesting, real-world, impactful problems in realms such as sustainability and smart cities. It is a very natural collaboration we’re talking about, bringing the beauty of the design element together with the technological challenges, to find creative solutions.

MOSTAFAVI: GSD also has extensive experience with the studio model. This is a course where a dozen students work with one, two, or three instructors from different backgrounds, and spend a whole semester working together on a project. The concept of studio practice is a workshop model, rather than a lecture course, and takes real-world situations under consideration and proposes alternative solutions. Studios will be a distinctive part of the new program.

DOYLE: The momentum that we’re bringing to this from SEAS includes courses like ES96, where large, open-ended, complex problems of great societal impact are put in front of students. The kind of problems that students work on are very complex, multilayered, pressing global challenges that don’t have any textbook answers. There’s not a solution you can go look up. There’s not one solution. There’s a multitude of solutions. We’re harnessing their creativity to work in teams, to collaborate.

MOSTAFAVI: The courses have clients, people who have a real set of needs, like a CEO of a tech company who has been operating his firm the same way for years, but whose profits are declining, or a mayor who is facing complex infrastructure issues to repair with a limited budget. The issues are not just hypothetical constructs. The issues are invariably developed in consultation with people who have a lot of experience, and they are looking for solutions to the kind of questions that they face. I think the question of the client, the user, and how you’re mediating, testing your product, or testing your solutions, is going to be key.

GAZETTE: What jobs will people go onto after they graduate?

MOSTAFAVI: We imagine that people who complete this program might end up working for companies that have a very strong connection to societal needs. You could also imagine that they could work for a number of technology companies. There will be a lot of possibilities for people who don’t want to work for anybody else, who want to start their own companies to develop their own ideas, people who really want to be innovative entrepreneurs.