On Tuesday, March 1, Professor of Anthropology at Olin College of Engineering Caitrin Lynch gave a lecture titled “Disability and Design: Integrating Voices and Expertise for a Desirable Future.”
Dean of the Arts and Humanities and Professor of Italian Ellen Nerenberg introduced Lynch and described her work.
“Her research and teaching examines the dynamics of work and cultural values with a focus on aging and gender,” Nerenberg said.
Lynch began her presentation by citing recent articles which promote STEM and devalue the liberal arts. However, as an anthropologist in an engineering school, Lynch still values the utility of a liberal arts education. She quoted a passage from “Bringing the Liberal Arts to Engineering Education,” a 2015 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, to emphasize her point.
“Engineering education needs to prepare students to design expansively and imaginatively—a capacity that a liberal arts education cultivates, along with critical thinking, clear communication, and productive collaboration,” Lynch read.
To design new and innovative solutions to problems, engineers must be able to overcome habitual perception and see problems in new ways. Lynch explained that a liberal arts education greatly increases an engineer’s ability to do so.
“In an engineering education, we’ve long talked to students about what to build and how to build it,” Lynch said. “But we haven’t really gotten them to stop and think about who they’re designing for when are they designing, why are they designing. Those kind of questions are very much liberal arts kind of questions.”
Lynch also discussed human-centered design and engineering at home. She said that in order to make new solutions to a problem, one must start with a new observation. In fields such as prosthetics, the product is created first, and the user is consulted afterward. This method works in some cases, but oftentimes, the user is upset by certain aspects of the design and does not like the product. If an engineer discusses at length with a client ahead of time, then a much better product suited for the person’s needs can be created.
Lynch then spoke about design thinking and the “Innovator’s Compass,” which is a methodological approach to creating new solutions. The first phase is the observation of what happens and why, followed by the framing of what matters most and why.
“Traditional anthropologists would end here,” Lynch said. “Designers move over here; now that they’ve framed what’s going on, they move to ideas.”
In the third phase, designers create ideas for possible solutions. Then, following this, in the fourth phase, the ideas are tested. The cycle repeats until a viable solution has been created.
Lynch then discussed Cindy, a woman whose fingers had been amputated because of a massive heart attack.
“Cindy has a $90 thousand robotic hand that she never uses,” Lynch said.
Because of her disability, Cindy had to see the world in a different way. She was able to engineer and find her own solutions that did not require a prosthetic hand.
“[In prosthetics,] typically what’s done is the person with the disability is consulted at the end of the design cycle,” Lynch said.
It is essential for designers to engage with people early on in the design process. At Olin College, they do just that.
“Olin College prepares students to become exemplary engineering innovators who recognize needs, design solutions and engage in creative enterprises for the good of the world,” Olin’s mission statement reads.
Lynch is currently teaching a course called Human Based Design, in which she and her students focus on the needs of elderly people in their community. Lynch says that in this course, students are not only taught to design, but also to learn more about the elderly community by making meaningful connections. Lynch emphasized the importance of integrating voices and expertise since those who are living with a disability will have a much better idea of what they need than someone who is just designing.
“We start with people and we end with people,” Lynch said.
In this way, students immerse themselves in the lives of elder community members to understand the physical obstacles they seek to overcome. They then frame the problems and develop ideas. They create prototypes and test their solutions, and the cycle repeats until the end of the course. Ultimately, one of the main goals of the course is to fight ageism.
“Ageism allows younger generations to see old people [differently] from themselves,” Lynch said. “They cease to identify with the elders as human beings.”
Students see how perspectives change with aging; they don’t dread aging, but rather see new opportunities and ways to adapt.
“I thought the talk really made me consider how we need to alter our surroundings instead of spend millions on developing new technologies in order to include those with disabled bodies,” said Shelli Weiler ’19. “My mom has multiple sclerosis, and she’s almost fully paralyzed from the neck down. This talk really made me consider ways in which I could provide the most support to her and create a positive, maneuverable environment for her without highly expensive equipment.”
Weiler added that she admired the discussion’s emphasis on bettering the world.
“To me, the most interesting point that Caitrin brought up was how people adapt to their limitations as they grow older and find new ways to work around them to truly do what they love,” she said. “I think the lecture was really inspiring and allowed me to think about how empathetically devoting attention to meet one person’s needs instead of attempting to design for the masses can truly have an impact just as profound.”