University of Illinois students are infusing purpose into digital making thanks to Vishal Sachdev’s Digital Making Seminar course, which recently focused on accessible product design. The mission of the course is to teach students how to create products with digital fabrication and share them with the world – but now a renewed purpose is being injected into that mission.
Sachdev and Deana McDonagh, a professor of industrial design, brought their courses together into a revamped sequence where students create products that are meaningful and provide a pathway to impact in the real world. They took a cohort of 21 students from Gies Business, Fine and Applied Arts, and Engineering, and they paired the students with Adam Bleakney, head coach of the University of Illinois wheelchair track and field team. Bleakney helped frame the students’ discovery toward opportunities in the life experiences of differently-abled athletes, rather than their challenges.
“Wheelchair super-users inspire us,” said Sachdev, who is spearheading Gies Business’ collaboration with the Siebel Center for Design and the School of Art+Design. “Whether it’s the hot sun or an icy day, they’re out there training. If our students can create something these users will like, it will likely also appeal to a broader audience.”
Bleakney coordinated a group of mentors from the university’s Division of Disability Resources and Educational Services, who work hand-in-hand with the students to inspire and guide them. Their focus is designing solutions with people with disabilities, instead of for them. Students are trained on empathetic design, opportunity identification, and concept refinement.
The students start by learning to empathize with the end-user, working with mentors who are differently-abled. One of those mentors, Jenna Fesemyer, is a prosthetic user and member of the university’s wheelchair track team. She and the other mentors inspire the students to find opportunities to contribute.
“The idea that students are working with me, and not for me, to create a design that will improve my quality of life is extremely rewarding,” said Fesemyer. “My favorite moments are when the students completely light up from their continued interest and understanding of disability and design.”
After meeting with their mentors at the beginning of the semester, students began the process of empathetic design and 3D modeling in the Illinois MakerLab. The course then moved to the Champaign Urbana Community Fab Lab, where students learned to use everything from micro-controllers to laser cutters. They even used sewing machines to fabricate a wrist accessory that tracks motion.
“Business students get a unique opportunity to work with design and engineering students, and they learn to integrate diverse perspectives and learn from each other,” said Sachdev, co-founder, and director of the Illinois MakerLab, the world’s first 3D printing lab inside a business school. “Instead of writing business plans, they get to create a product, and some of them may find pathways to building a social enterprise out of this product.”
AJ Poe is one of the students involved. Her team is prototyping an attachable tread to help prosthetic users walk on ice without slipping since traditional boots are too heavy for the residual limb.
“The experience has been incredibly inspiring and eye-opening,” said Poe, a sophomore accounting major. “With the focus on accessibility and affordability this semester, it has been especially enlightening to learn about the struggles of people with disabilities and learn about how difficult it is to obtain products that help them.”
Students continue working on their ideas, create mock-ups of their products and then move into design audits and prototyping. They also get input from an external consulting firm, Milestone Labs, which specializes in accessible product design and taking those products to market.
It all culminated with a weekend Make-a-thon inside the Fab Lab. More than 60 students from three different courses worked in teams to create solutions that can improve the lives of those who are differently-abled and ultimately the lives of consumers everywhere. They brainstormed, designed, and built their prototypes over the course of the weekend before presenting their final products to a panel of judges.
After the Make-a-thon, which has the backing of several sponsors including Clark-Lindsey and Ultimaker, students tested and demonstrated their prototypes, reviewed them with their expert users, and gave their final portfolio presentation. Throughout the semester, Sachdev emphasized that the journey is just as important as the end product. Week by week, students have built essential metacognition skills—the ability to understand their own thought processes—reflecting on what they learned by writing a blog. These are skills, Sachdev said, that cannot be automated.
“With a focus on real users, and the prompt to design real products that can go into the world, the students learn the principles of ‘human-centered design’ with a focus on empathy,” said Sachdev. “These skills in design thinking and quick prototyping will help them deal with ‘wicked’ problems in the real world while designing a product, service, or experience.”
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