From the president: Trying and failing at the Pod

As I tried and failed and tried again to get the IV needle into the artificial arm, it occurred to me that this looks much easier on TV. No wonder nurses need training. The arm was one of the projects in development at the Pratt School of Engineering’s new Design Pod, a makerspace that’s home to an innovative new course for first-year engineering students. In the program, as I learned, student teams are challenged with using the engineering design process to solve problems for clients from the Duke community and the surrounding region.

In addition to the IV arm—meant for training Duke nurses—one team from this fall’s inaugural class spent the semester building new adaptive feeders for the Duke Lemur Center; others designed lids that automatically raise and lower on planter boxes at Duke Gardens or a water sampler for a research drone for the Marine Lab. Their clients consulted them in the initial stages, but it was mostly up to the students and their technical advisers to explore, design, prototype, and build.

When I visited in early December, the students were in the last few days of their projects, with a final presentation to their clients just a few days away. We met in their bright and airy new lab, a space that used to be a campus restaurant. Prototypes of various sizes were scattered on the teams’ workbenches, sitting next to laser cutters, 3D printers, and more low-tech tools that I recognized from my woodworking days.

Dean Ravi Bellamkonda and Professors Ann Saterbak and Sophia Santillan, who lead the new course, guided me to the table with the artificial arm and encouraged me to try my hand at inserting an IV. Nursing students had brought the project to the Design Pod teams because the skin on the old arms felt too rubbery and unrealistic. First-year Taylor Huie told me that her team went through several synthetic gels over the course of the project in an effort to create a more realistic “skin” for the arm. Each one failed until they finally settled on the right formula.

“The biggest thing I learned in this class is that it’s okay to fail,” said Taylor, as she finally took over and deftly succeeded on her first try. “I am on the pre-med track, and I was considering transferring to Trinity. But this class convinced me to stick with engineering.”

Saterbak and Santillan followed up on her comment, telling me that by engaging students in the problem-based design process from the start, Pratt is reversing the traditional pyramid of engineering education. It’s typical to begin with math and science classes early on, with no applied engineering design until the final years of study. I found it easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of these instructors for this innovative approach—an early introduction to the creative side of engineering. The experience, I could see, will inspire more students to pursue engineering degrees.

Early evidence suggests that it’s working: A survey by engineering senior Jessi Daniels showed that students in the class felt far more confident in their design and engineering skills by the end of the semester.

As we finished up the tour, Dean Bellamkonda told me he plans to expand the program over the next several semesters and make it a required course in the near future, along with new introductory classes in data science and computational thinking—part of his vision for preparing creative engineers who are inspired and equipped to solve complex social problems.

The opportunity to help provide that kind of training to future engineers, doctors, lawyers, nurses, and academics excites me. And as I left the lab, it occurred to me that all of our students, as they immerse themselves in problem-solving activities, will get an invaluable lesson: In the world beyond campus, there are bound to be a few bumps along the way.

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