Hi everyone, long time no see! I’m Alex and today I want to talk about one of my favorite courses this semester and one that epitomizes some of my favorite things about Olin: Engineering for Humanity.
Engineering for Humanity, or E4H for short, is a course where students connect with local older adults (usually around 60+ years old) and spend the class working with them. We create teams of 3-5 students who meet with a community partner in and outside of class to pinpoint an area of life we can help with. Along the way, we learn a lot not just about our community partner, but about aging in America and societal attitudes surrounding it as well as many of the ways we are involving older adults in our communities. By the end of the class, each of us will have made something that our community partners can continue to use in their lives.
Along with my teammates Hadleigh and Emma, we are working with our awesome partner Linda. We got to know her by spending time over at her house and at other places she visits, like the Natick Community Center. There, we learned about her daily life—like how she performs music at senior centers, plays chair volleyball, and visits groups about humor and conversations, among so many other things.
Pictured: Hadleigh, Linda, Emma, and me!
As busy as Linda is, she needs to take an oxygen tank everywhere she goes, and this can be a challenge. She has many bags for bringing her tank places, but each of them have their own problems. We identified a few problems she has involving her tank as well as general improvement points around her house and began to narrow them down with her until we found a project we wanted to work on: a better backpack for carrying her oxygen tank. We’re now working on a prototype to bring to her house--exciting!
Something special about E4H as opposed to other classes involving user-oriented design is the personal, tailored experience. The final deliverable of this class is going to be something made custom for our community partners, and that’s a powerful feeling. While we might not change the way products are designed around the world, it’s really interesting to consider the value of custom-designed items. I enjoy the level of detail and care we can put into our product to make it the best it can possibly be. The challenge is not to incorporate as many different users’ needs into one product, but to demonstrate our understanding of our one partner’s needs and values through the things we present.
For a sampling of the other things that have been done in class, my friends are working on customizing a walker to have footrests and sit at a better height for social gatherings, and previous years involved organizing calendars, creating Mandarin-English flashcards, and building a chair to help an older adult work in a garden. The products are as diverse as the people we work with!
There’s so many things I love about this class. I love getting in touch with actual real people and making a difference in their lives. I love reconsidering a group of people we all know but rarely think about. I love designing with a diverse team and getting the input of both classmates and real users--our community partners. I especially love the bonds I’ve formed with my team and my partner. I get the sense that even after this class is done, I’ll continue to spend time with my community partner. Engineering for Humanity is the quintessential Olin class: all about experimentation, hands-on experiences, and human-centered design. I highly encourage anyone to take it or just to reach out and consider how you can design for the people in your life.