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A Prototype Becomes a Paradigm

Duke Engineering's new design course challenges first-year students to create solutions to real-world problems

Getting blood drawn or having an IV placed is rarely a pleasant experience, and it can be even worse when it takes multiple attempts to hit a vein. To ensure they don’t cause additional discomfort, nurs-ing students will typically practice IV insertion on a model arm, but the plastic tool is a poor replica of human skin.

To give students at Duke University’s School of Nursing a more lifelike model to practice on, engineering students opted to design a new arm using a commercial crafting material that more closely feels like human skin, and, as an added benefit, hides evidence of previous needle marks.

This was just one of the many projects created in the Pratt School of Engineering’s First-Year Design Experience. Developed to immediately provide incoming engineering students with practical design experience, the course is co-led by Ann Saterbak, the winner of the Theo C. Pilkington Outstanding Educator Award from the Biomedical Engineering Division of the American Society for Engineering Education and professor of the practice in biomedical engineering, and Sophia Santillan, an assistant professor of the practice in mechanical engineering and materials science. 

“There’s a real opportunity at Duke to affect engineering on a wide scale with a first-year experience applicable to all engineering students,” says Saterbak, who came to Duke from Rice University, where she was associate dean for engineering education and led efforts to infuse hands-on opportunities and design thinking into the undergraduate program. “Engineering schools for a long time have introduced design concepts with wooden-stick bridge projects and the like. What’s been missing is the client, and understanding how an engineer works to solve real problems for a real person or organization.”

In the new 5,000-square-foot Duke Engineering Design Pod, first-year engineering students have an opportunity to practice using 3D printers, power drills, laser cutters and other tools while acquainting themselves with the design process––from prototyping to finalpresentations. 

During the semester-long course, students are tasked with designing tools for various community clients, with projects ranging from a device to feed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center to designing a tool that can capture trash from the water flow of Ellerbe Creek for the Ellerbe Creek Watershed As-sociation. Because students take the design course before officially declaring a major, it’s an early op-portunity to explore projects from different programs––those interested in biomedical engineering often choose to create medical devices, while students interested in environmental engineering may pursue projects related to sustainability. 

Piloted in the fall of 2017, the program was in-tended to grow over three years before becoming a requirement for all Duke Engineering students. But by the end of the spring semester the program was doing so well that all of Duke’s engineering departments opted to make the course an immediate requirement for engineering students. As the number of students grow, Saterbak and Santillan are recruit-ing faculty from each department to lead multiple sections of the design experience. In addition to the new instructors, students will also complete design work in the Foundry, a 7,600-square-foot student space for collaborative design.

“It’s great to see students respond so well to the course and the practical design experience it offers,” says Saterbak. “It shows that Duke engineers are committed to these projects and solving problems.”