Integrating Design Theory & the Scientific Process

October 25, 2013

by Hanna McPhee '14

I am sitting across the table from my thesis advisor. We stare at one another in silence, our faces reflecting equal levels of frustration. After a 15-minute debate on the differences between a parameter and a constraint, it has become apparent my advisor is an engineer, and I am not. My advisor and I meet weekly to discuss my research. Each week we inevitably hit a wall; expressing the same words, but interpreting them in entirely different ways. With a background in biology and design, my definition of details often do not align with an engineer’s. However, we both know the objectives of my thesis, and both want to work towards that goal (and diploma)

So why are we having such a difficult time communicating?

Hanna McPhee '14Hanna McPhee '14 It starts with the realization that our different disciplines do not speak the same language. Up until the past few years, my education centered around finding a path and, for the most part, sticking to it. If you are good at math, you stay on the honors track through middle and high school to become a “math person”. Even later, with a liberal arts education, I felt swayed to identify myself solely as a “biology person”. There was never room for another subject like art, no space for speaking two languages fluently. My educational system created silos between the different disciplines. Once I chose one path, essentially my language, other subjects became foreign.

Connections are missing between these disciplines, and in particular between the arts and sciences. On almost every project I have worked on thus far, my analytical and creative teammates have struggled to connect. From deadlines to critical thinking, collaborating has been as difficult as a native English speaker interpreting Italian. Sure, perhaps some root words are similar. But you end up just speaking loudly at one another, waving your hands around as a flailing final attempt at communication.

Fortunately for me, I was given the opportunity to create my own concentration and fully integrate biology and design into one cohesive means of critical thinking. But it would be extremely naïve to think that type of interdisciplinary education can be implemented everywhere - and nor should it be. We still need the classically trained “quant jocks” as well as the “edgy creatives”. Without them, a melting pot of full-fledged hybrids such as myself would lose any sort of concrete base for reference.

So where do we go from here?

I believe each individual, no matter how much of a purist they may be in their respective field, should be responsible for entertaining interdisciplinary ideas. Exposing ourselves to different disciplines results in a better understanding of our peer’s work. With this deeper understanding, we create a greater means of respect. Whether that takes the form of double majoring, or simply taking a few electives, some threshold of interdisciplinary thought is important.

In an era where buzzwords like “collaboration” and “innovation” land you a job, its time to actually start flexing both sides of our brains. At the end of this journey, behind our various languages, it is surprising how similar my analytical and creative peers are. My STEM friends always shudder at the free flowing process of iterating and prototyping. My designers laugh at the time spent nit picking over numerical data, seemingly so far removed from the problem at hand. However, at the end of the day, both are following almost identical steps towards finding solutions. The proof can be found just looking at the scientific process alongside design theory.

Although one approach may rely more on quantifiable data and the other on a more “human” means of communication, step by step the two share striking similarities. Combining these two theories helps me personally make sense of my own analytical and creative brain. When they come together as one scientific and artistic critical thinking tool, the result is a deeper understanding of defining problems and finding solutions.

In short, the banter between myself and my advisor is not about the difference between parameters and constraints. It is about the exposure to a new language.

My thesis will teach me many things. But I sincerely believe my weekly exposure to my advisor’s brain – and all the neurotic details that come with it – will influence me the most when I walk out into the working world.