Engineering, SMFA faculty craft new curriculum with maker mindset

SMFA's main building, 230 The Fenway, is pictured on March 24, 2017. Seohyun Shim / The Tufts Daily Archives

Students, graduate and undergraduate, pack a room at the 574 Boston Ave. Collaborative Learning and Innovation Complex (CLIC) on April 24 for their final presentations on their semester-long group projects: to design and prototype a solution that achieves one of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It may be surprising that this class, Emotional Design (ENP 149), is taught in the Human Factors Engineering program by Jennaca Davies, lecturer in metals at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) at Tufts.

Davies‘ class is one of a growing number of interdisciplinary initiatives by the School of Engineering and SMFA faculty in the field of design and making. Not only is Davies interested in cross-school collaboration, but she also brings to the table experience from both the engineering and fine art worlds in architecture, jewelry and metals.

“I’m halfway between design and fine art, and have always gravitated toward more technical [areas],” Davies said. “I like a lot of digital fabrication techniques, 3D printing, laser cutting — all of those type of things.”

Last fall, Davies co-taught a level-one engineering class, Foundations of Design: Methods of Making, with Darryl Williams, former Dean of Undergraduate Education in the School of Engineering.

“We did a lot of exploratory assignments initially. Very basic, three-dimensional, foundational design,” Davies said. “Kind of getting [the students] out of the world of engineering entirely and getting them to think about the terminology of three-dimensional design.”

Davies was first introduced to Williams by SMFA Dean Nancy Bauer, before she worked with Williams to apply for a Tufts Innovates seed grant titled “Innovation Through Design in Engineering, Art, and Science.” In an email to the Daily, Bauer noted her commitment to facilitating cross-school collaboration but emphasized the role of individual faculty members in creating such collaborations in the first place.

“Occasionally, when an SMFA faculty member is musing about something they’d like to do, a lightbulb will go off in my head, and I’ll put them in touch with faculty members in engineering,” Bauer said. “Far more often, however, the artists and the engineers just find each other … The deans’ job is to carve out spaces for makers to create, embrace the good ideas that come our way and support the faculty as best we can.”

Bauer also noted another recent instance of cross-school collaboration: On April 25, students in a class taught by Ethan Murrow, professor of the practice in painting at the SMFA, finished painting a wall mural in Robinson Hall, after observing a robotics class taught by Chris Rogers, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

In fact, Davies explained that after working with Williams as co-instructors last fall, she was approached by James Intriligator, professor of the practice in mechanical engineering and faculty coordinator of human factors engineering, to teach Emotional Design, a new course taught this spring.

“[Emotional design] is really stepping into the shoes of the person that you’re designing for, and saying, ‘How do I empathize with them, how do I have an emotional response to what it is that they need, and how do I solve the problems that they are running into in their lives?’ It’s very human-centered design,” she said.

Sophomore Winston Tan, who is double majoring in engineering psychology and computer science, is enrolled in the Emotional Design course. He shared more about the process of working on his group project this semester.

“We would be fabricating things, we would be sourcing for materials, going for interviews, surveys — the usual usability testing, in order to come up with a product that we would think would solve our users’ needs,” he said.

Davies noted that there are students of different backgrounds and ages in her course this semester, which mirrors the current trend of multidisciplinary teams in the design and innovation industries.

“[Companies] don’t want just an engineer anymore. They don’t want just a designer. They want people that are connected, cross-disciplinary, able to work and understand a little bit of what’s going in all these different fields, so that they can bring a comprehensive conversation to the table,” she said.

Despite Davies‘ best efforts, no SMFA students enrolled in her Emotional Design course, which is taught on the Medford/Somerville campus.

“I was desperate to get a few [SMFA students] in that class. I think that they would bring a really different conversation, and they are also really comfortable with their hands. They are immediately like, ‘Oh, let’s just jump into material,’ whereas for my engineering students, that’s not what they inherently do. [Engineering students] are very good at systems … but the actual physical making is not something that they have a lot of training in,” she said.

Davies faced a similar pattern with the engineering students in her course last fall, Foundations of Design: Methods of Making, many of whom were less familiar with more ambiguous course material.

“There were moments of confusion. They were unsure of how to answer a prompt that didn’t have an answer. There was no concrete way of saying, ‘This is exactly what [the instructors] want.’ That threw them all a bit. They questioned that, and they also questioned the fact that the answer was subjective,” she said.

After the course ended last fall, Davies was heartened to see her students engage in iterative prototyping and become more handy with the fabrication tools that are available for engineers through Bray Lab — a design, build and testing space run by the Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“I’m not sure everybody loved it. Some people are going to gravitate to that type of work and other people are not. But in general, they began to understand what it was we were trying to show them,” Davies said. “They are really comfortable working with paper, and they can model-make very quickly. They can do a quick little design study that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do without having taken that class, or at least they wouldn’t have been as comfortable doing. They learn quickly — these are very intelligent students. You can tell them once and they understand the concept, and then they know how to do it from there on.”

In teaching these courses, Davies has come up against limitations in the existing studio and storage spaces available on the Medford/Somerville campus.

“There are very few rooms where you can go in, move the tables around, push them all together, get everybody working in a group, and know that you can make a mess and it isn’t going to be a problem. There is no messy sink, or paint or any available tools, other than a little bit in Bray,” Davies said. “The other thing that we have run into is that there is not a lot of room for storage of projects. If you’re making an object that is this big, do you carry it back and forth to your dorm? Do you consider that maybe you make your project a little smaller, just so it is portable?”

In an email to the Daily, Dean of the School of Engineering Jianmin Qu noted that the 5,000 square feet Nolop Fabrication, Analysis, Simulation and Testing (FAST) Lab — slated to open in June — will offer a brand-new space for Tufts makers and designers.

“There are many opportunities that SMFA and [Engineering] faculty can collaborate on. One such example is the soon to be completed Nolop FAST Facility, a.k.a. the makerspace,” he said.

A March 31, 2016 article in the Daily also noted an expansion of maker-spaces available to students around campus, including the Crafts Center, Bray Lab and Jumbo’s Maker Studio, located at CLIC.

Another difficulty that Davies has faced in building such collaborations is the block schedule of undergraduate students on the Medford/Somerville campus, which she said discourages students from taking studio classes in SMFA at Tufts.

“The reality is that you guys have very packed schedules, and then you’re dealing with a commute — trying to get across town, it’s not easy. You’re in classes all day, almost every day,” Davies said. “We are very aware of it, but we can only shift so much at the [SMFA] and still run the type of curriculum we need to run. We can’t run a studio class in an hour and a half. You basically would set up, and it would be time to go.”

Regardless, Davies hopes to continue offering new design courses, foster cross-school collaboration and work with scheduling conflicts, even as Williams — whom Davies described as a great working partner — has since left Tufts to join the Franklin Institute, a center for science education and research in Philadelphia, Pa.

Tan is pleased with the expertise that Davies has brought and hopes that the design curriculum at Tufts will continue to expand in the future.

“It’s a different perspective. For example, [Davies] has experience with fabrication and more of the visual and emotional design field, compared to [others in the] School of Engineering,” Tan said. “I think our human factors program needs more perspectives, or has to go more in-depth and not just scrape the surface. For me, I want there to be more depth in it, more focus, maybe even more specific expertise.”