Elizabeth Gerber ’98 knows a good design isn’t just about technical function—it’s about developing a product that is both usable and desired. Trained as a product designer and behavioral researcher, the Northwestern assistant professor of mechanical engineering uses behavioral science to understand and inform the design of products and services.
Gerber’s “aha” moment came while working on an aircraft fuel gauge while at B.F. Goodrich Aerospace Engineering. “At the very end of a long discussion on functionality, very casually someone introduced the fact that a mechanic refueling the plane is going to need to read the gauge—while standing on a ladder leaning against the side of the plane,” she says. “One of my favorite parts is talking to people about how they actually experience a product—understanding the technical, behavioral, and emotional needs.” She is exploring that interface as the principal investigator for the Creative Action Lab at Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute, which investigates the role of technology in supporting individual and group creativity. There she applies behavioral sciences to the design of tools and practices to improve creative performance.
Gerber is also the founder of Design for America (DFA), an extracurricular, design-based learning initiative building creative confidence in students through design for local and social impact.
“DFA is a ‘product,’ a pipeline for future innovators,” says Gerber. “My dream is that all DFA students firmly believe that they have the ability to innovate solutions to challenging societal problems and believe that their ideas are valued.”
Her efforts came full circle this spring, when DFA staff led an innovation workshop at Dartmouth. More than 70 participants from various academic departments—anthropology, geography, English, and engineering—gathered to tackle a single design problem: helping out elderly people living in rural New Hampshire and Vermont.
Gerber says she first found inspiration for unconventional design education when leading Dartmouth’s first-year outdoors orientation. “I realized the potential of peer-to-peer learning and the transformational power of physical and mental immersion experiences in transforming our identity and confidence,” she told Dave Seliger ’12 for his first post in Core77, the leading industrial design blog. “I danced the ‘Salty Dog Rag’ with the first years…then sent them off on their trips with a sense of excitement of what they would learn from each [other] and about themselves.” You can read the whole post at core77.com.
A new Dartmouth chapter of DFA, led by Alison Polton-Simon ’14, Sean Hammett ’14, and Lucas Yamamura ’14, begins this fall.
>> M.E.M. grad Gabe Farkas Th’02 is putting his second graduate degree, in statistics, to work in the San Antonio Spurs’ front office as coordinator of basketball analytics. Farkas, a former contributor to Mike Kurylo’s CourtsideTimes.Net, says his research is used primarily as part of game strategy and to build the roster. The amount of data being collected—publicly and privately—is growing exponentially, he says, and the next big thing in sports analytics will be the development of systems that integrate all the disparate data sources. A basketball fan since he was a kid, Farkas brings a passion for and understanding of the sport to his review of the numbers. “The NBA is definitely the sport I’ve followed the closest,” he says. “To work in professional sports, you need to be really dedicated, since the hours sometimes can be long and the workload demanding. Also, you need to have a solid, non-numerical understanding of the game to be able to gauge if your results pass ‘the laugh test.’ ”
>> Dave Lindberg ’09 Th’10 is bringing his experience working on Thayer School’s Formula Hybrid racecar to Mombasa, Kenya. As the lead engineer of Mobius Motors, Lindberg is hoping to create the next generation of reliable and affordable transportation across Africa. The challenge is to create a vehicle capable of handling the continent’s unpaved and poorly maintained terrain while keeping it inexpensive. “My company plans to incorporate low-cost components available from small-production cars into a welded tubular steel chassis, sparing the amenities and using only the most essential systems,” says Lindberg. “We hope the end result gives lower-income people access to mobility and also serves as a platform for transportation entrepreneurs, giving even the most impoverished access to employment.” He’s working on developing two prototypes (Mobius Two and Mobius Three), lowering costs, and organizing production. A majority of the parts are off-the-shelf Toyota components, he says, but the steel chassis and all custom parts were modeled in SolidWorks for fabrication by local workers in Kenya. After spending the last two months in the shop, Lindberg has almost finished his first prototype. Then it’s on to the development of Mobius Three before he returns to the States this winter.
ASK THE EXPERT
The Expert: Philip Coyle ’56 Th’57
Associate Director for National Security and International Affairs,
White House Office of Scientific and Technology Policy
When it comes to national security, there’s not much Philip Coyle hasn’t handled in his 40-year career. He spent 33 years developing and testing nuclear weapons, lasers, and other high-tech systems at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory—and worked for several Democratic and Republican administrations.
During the Carter administration, he oversaw the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons programs, nuclear safeguards and security, arms control, and non-proliferation. During the Clinton administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense. President George W. Bush appointed him to the Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission. President Obama appointed Coyle to his current position in 2010.
The going hasn’t always been easy. Coyle attracted both praise and criticism following his 2009 assessment before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee that America’s missile defense program suffers from technological and testing shortcomings and questionable strategic value.
In the following, Coyle discusses his career in national security.
What lessons from your years developing and testing weapons did you bring to your current position?
This answer isn’t original, but it’s true: I learned that the devil is in the details. Success can hinge on persistent attention to engineering details. In products for everyday life as well as for our soldiers in battle, those details also involve the expected operational environment and the expectations of the end user in practice.
You’ve worked for Democratic and Republican administrations. What challenges come with that territory?
All administrations feel vulnerable to accusations that they aren’t doing enough to solve this or that particular problem, even as they are doing everything that they can, and doing it as well as anyone could. Why haven’t we solved cancer or world hunger or world peace? It’s certainly not for lack of trying, but rather because the problems themselves are so difficult.
What is it like working at the Office of Scientific and Technology Policy?
From one day to the next we may not know what issue we are going to have to grapple with. It may be the outbreak of a new disease strain, something new happening in the Middle East, or something to do with cybersecurity. We worked hard to help the Japanese with the aftermaths of the earthquake and tsunami and the subsequent nuclear reactor accidents near Fukushima. We need to be able to adapt quickly, and we do.
We also work on America’s energy security. For example, the Navy and Air Force are experimenting with biofuels made from algae in fighter jet aircraft. The Department of Defense (DOD) can help America develop a clean-energy economy by being an early buyer of effective clean-energy technologies, much as DOD investments in semiconductors spurred commercial industries in computers and cell phones.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
My entire career has been devoted to American national security. I’ve worked on developing and testing some of America’s nuclear weapons. I’ve worked on experimental new sources of energy. In the DOD my job was to make sure that the systems we provide our troops would be effective in battle. It has been rewarding to see the things I have worked on come to fruition and contribute to a strong national defense.
Let’s spool backwards. What did you study at Thayer?
My degree was in mechanical engineering, but at Thayer I studied fluid mechanics, heat transfer, optics, electronics, economics, and many other fields. That turned out to be important because my career was never limited to mechanical engineering. My education at Thayer gave me the confidence that I could solve just about any technical problem that came my way.
Did any professors particularly influence you?
Professor J.J. Ermenc was an important influence for me. He was studying renewable energy decades before it was “cool.” All the professors at Thayer engaged students in a way I’d never experienced. They discussed each topic with us, taking our feedback and questions until they were sure we understood. They didn’t just lecture at us; they worked with us. It was a wonderful experience, and it changed my life.