The Engineering Design Studio (EDS) at NYU Abu Dhabi supports ambitious student undertakings from across the university through coursework, mentorship, and engagement with external partners. Students are challenged to undertake problem solving and value creation through the lens of engineering design, combining approaches from across disciplines to deliver elegant answers to meaningful problems. The studio is home to the Engineers for Social Impact program, the Design & Innovation program, and hosts a number of Core Curriculum courses. It serves as a hub of activity for senior engineering capstone project work, as a home for teams preparing competition entries, and as a focal point for student interest groups.
"Supporting ambitious student undertakings, across the university, in delivering elegant answers to meaningful problems."
Within the studio, resources are available 24/7 to transform ideas into reality; however, it is not a "Maker Space" in the traditional sense. Instead of focusing on access to equipment or training programs for operating manufacturing tools, emphasis is placed on identifying worthwhile endeavors, refining concepts, and selecting effective strategies, software tools, representations, and processes that best deliver on the goals of student-led ventures. This approach aligns with the philosophy that engineers are responsible not for the making of things but for ensuring what gets made has been planned, designed, simulated, and verified to be practical, feasible, and sensible to produce. The next generation of engineers is provided space and time to develop the poise and confidence necessary to initiate and deliver technically-sophisticated, socially-responsible and culturally-relevant responses to some of the most challenging design prompts the world has to offer.
The Engineering Design Studio promotes student-initiated endeavors and encourages a framework of thinking that extends beyond theory into a zone where personal initiative, resourcefulness, critical thinking, and perseverance are key drivers to success. Since the inception of the studio, students have created open source projects, have filed and been granted patents, won national and international awards and competitions, started companies, collaborated with partners in government and industry, and received grants and awards totaling more than 4.8 million UAE Dirhams.
The Engineering Design Studio (EDS) traces its origins to the Design and Innovation (2010 – present) course and the original Engineering Labs that served students from 2010 to 2013 in the NYUAD Center for Science and Engineering (CSE) in Musaffah. In 2013, when NYUAD began planning to move to its new home on Saadiyat Island, Matthew Karau and Prof. Ramesh Jagannathan set out to redefine the concept and scope of what a student engineering lab could be. Behind the scenes, Ramesh worked with the administration to align approvals and manage the politics of the transformation while Matt architected the vision for the space and specified the elements that would comprise the newly-envisioned lab. Thankfully, Dr. Michael Davis and Dr. Philip Pannicker took on the task of transitioning the traditional electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering teaching labs to the new campus, affording Matt and Ramesh the freedom to focus fully on the EDS project.
The city of Abu Dhabi and the UAE, more broadly, in 2010 was a vibrant and dynamic environment but didn't offer many options to create precision prototypes. You could buy a 150mm wrench for a bolt on an oil rig, but it was neearly impossible to find a 1.6mm screw; you could buy high-voltage electrical infrastructure supplies, but you couldn't find a microcontroller anywhere. The EDS took on the responsibility of collecting easy-to-access components to support the production of early-stage prototypes with high-precision components and sophisticated electronics. In working to best deliver on these goals, these materials were made available, free of charge, for students to experiment.
Across the span of a few short months in early 2014, plans for the lab were transformed from sketches, lists, and renderings into pallets of materials arriving to the new space. The room that houses the EDS (A5-015) was originally intended by the campus architects to be a run-of-the-mill science lab, initially populated with a forest of lab benches, fume hoods, and cookie-cutter workstations. It all had to go, and removing the equipment, to put it mildly, induced anxiety in both the engineering and lab management leadership. In line with the long-term vision of the EDS, though, this was just the first of many uncomfortable transitions necessary to ensure the lab would serve its intended purposes. In the summer of 2014, Matt and his core team were some of the first individuals to setup camp on the new Saadiyat Campus (C1-036, later donated to another member of the growing Engineering Division). As plans for the new lab moved forward in earnest, students Nour Al Gharibeh and Vasily Rudchenko served as design consultants, helping plan the space, its functions, and equipment requirements.
"The room was initially populated with a forest of lab benches, fume hoods, and cookie-cutter workstations. It all had to go. ...and this was just the first of many uncomfortable transitions necessary to ensure the lab would serve its intended purposes."
In Fall 2014, as the first semester of courses on the new Saadiyat Island Campus got underway, the Engineering Design Studio, in its infant form, was one of the first and only places to be open for business from day one, ready to support teaching, student projects, and Engineering Capstones. This was obviously a point of pride for the Engineering Division and represented not only the hard work of Matt and his team but also the behind-the-scenes efforts of Ramesh, Prof. Sunil Kumar (Dean of Engineering, 2009 – 2015), Sharon Angelica (Engineering Administration), and a nascent procurement team headed by Kurt Warren. The existence of the EDS came as a surprise to many in the NYUAD community, as it materialized quickly and looked like nothing NYUAD students, faculty, and staff had seen before. To put it into context, none of the up and coming vibrant elements of NYUAD's community were online at that point; the Arts Center was a ghost town, the Experimental Research Building (ERB) was still recovering from the shift of equipment from CSE, and much of campus was still in the earliest stages of gearing up to offer the services the community would eventually come to know and love.
Over the years, the EDS has been known by two other names and has experienced its fair share of growing pangs. In the earliest days, it was simply known as "superLab()" due to its intimate association with the Design and Innovation course, lovingly nicknamed "superLab()" by students. As time passed, the lab developed a personality based on the individuals working there as well as the types of work being undertaken; while it had always maintained a spirit of openness and sought to support student-initiated projects, it was now expanding to serve a wider community. In parallel, new initiatives were emerging on campus to support entrepreneurship that would eventually lead to the creation of StartAD. During the earliest days of those efforts, the EDS was temporarily known as both "superLab()" and "Idea Lab", the latter being a placeholder for what would become StartAD. Early entrepreneurial events and programs of "Idea Lab" were hosted in the EDS, but as activities intensified, the mission of "Idea Lab" focused mainly on generating external successes while the "superLab()" focused on supporting student initiatives. In identifying that the competing priorities of these missions were often at odds with each other, efforts were made to establish StartAD as a new entity, independent of the EDS and the Engineering Division. In 2016, as StartAD branched off in its own direction, the choice was made to rebrand "superLab()" to the "Engineering Design Studio" to more fully represent the mission and work being done in the space, beyond the Design & Innovation course.
As other faculty and staff arrived to teach and work in the Engineering Design Studio, a further clarification of mission became necessary. From 2016 to 2018, through another batch of challenging re-framings, the EDS, driven by the mission of supporting ambitious student undertakings, made significant changes to its structure. Questions like "Is Design Thinking really the silver bullet it's made out to be?", "What is Engineering Design, actually?" and "Is this truly a MakerSpace or Workshop?" had to be answered to clarify the lab's larger vision.
"Is Design Thinking really the silver bullet it's made out to be?"
The answers to those questions alienated many, but they also set the EDS on a trajectory that has continued to bring valuable new thinking and innovative approaches to the table, breaking free of traditional concepts of "Design" and "Prototyping" that have plagued university campuses around the globe since the early 2000's.
Because the EDS is envisioned to be a radically open space, its door was, literally, never closed from 2014 until the COVID-19 pandemic (with creative workarounds during 2020/2021 and beyond). However, in 2017, a group of individuals who disagreed with the lab's vision sought to shift to a model in which doors were locked and master-apprentice power dynamics, like those found in trade schools, would be established. In response, and in a painful but cathartic spurt of growth, nearly all tools requiring specialized training or Standard Operating Procedures were voluntarily removed from the space in the summer of 2018, ensuring the lab's doors could remain open to all. At face value, many would have considered this a detrimental blow; for the EDS, though, it represented a necessary unshackling from outdated thinking, and it propelled the lab forward to reshape its operating model into a 21st century structure that can be readily adopted by others around the world.
In the new era of the Engineering Design Studio, questions like "What is fundamentally problematic or undesirable about spaces like these?" became the motivation to more deeply understand what labs and spaces with similar missions need to be in order to best serve their communities. In considering that question, it became clear that one insidious property of such spaces leads to graduates saying things like, "If I still had access to the EDS, post-graduation, I would do X, Y, or Z". The implication being that students had developed a dependence upon free access to the lab and a learned sense of helplessness in its absence.
In response, the EDS adopted a radical approach of discouraging prototyping and discouraging iterative making in the lab while challenging students to rise above these apparent limitations and find ways to realize necessary prototypes. Summarized simply, the lab embraced the idea that "Engineers don't MAKE Things". Engineers have the responsibility to conceive, specify, simulate, and verify a design that is worth irreversibly committing resources to produce and eventually confirm the design is ready to be manufactured. Following that, 99% of the time, an engineer's work is passed along to a team of highly-skilled technicians, machinists, fabricators, or robots to bring the design to life. Rarely, if ever, will a professional engineer, in his or her career, find themselves personally operating the machinery of manufacturing. They may design industrial processes or architect assembly lines that lead to the manufacturing of millions of components, but they will, thankfully, not likely be pressing buttons on individual machines on a daily basis.
The following statements illustrate the crucial differences between "Maker Thinking" and "Strategic Systematic Thinking":
Maker Thinking: "After graduation, I'm confident that I will own or have immediate access to a wide range of the most up-to-date and high-tech means of manufacturing and will be free to use that machinery whenever I wish and at minimal or zero cost."
Strategic, Systematic Thinking (Engineers don't MAKE things): "After graduation, I'm confident that manufacturing firms and global logistics operators, driven by business imperatives, will continue to improve commercial access to the most up-to-date and high-tech means of manufacturing for anyone to engage with, on-demand, and at a fair price."
The well-intended philosophy of the "MakerSpace" is one of training individuals to use a small set of relatively high-tech tools to personally prototype ideas into physical forms with the hopes that iterative making will naturally lead to more sophisticated outcomes with time. However, an overwhelming trend that often emerges is that, once an initial capital investment is made in tools, those same tools live for a decade or more in the MakerSpace, quickly falling behind the state-of-the-art. Further, individuals using these tools tend to develop a strange yet predictable addiction to the processes available, and, instead of striving for better results, adapt their thinking and design norms to align with the capabilities of the freely-accessible machines and fall back on employing techniques able to be performed with their own two hands. This is not only undesirable; it's toxic and often leads to creating "advanced arts and crafts" (DIY) projects rather than highly-polished prototypes or engineered outcomes.
"Any person blaming tools for shoddy work is either unskilled at using them or has chosen them unwisely, or likely, both." — Anonymous
The philosophy of "Engineers don't MAKE things" is one of understanding and exploring the global landscape of manufacturing to align requirements of a design with the most appropriate commercially-available industrial fabrication processes. This approach doesn't seek to accumulate tools in a room; instead, it encourages individuals working on projects to more deeply consider a number of factors about their designs before beginning to irreversibly transform materials to test or validate ideas (AKA prototyping). The most powerful tools then become software, keyboards, and 3-button mice. With this approach, some amount of spontaneity is admittedly lost, but along with that, comes the benefit of producing higher quality prototypes, built by skilled professionals, that better deliver on requirements and move a project forward. Additionally, instead of developing a dependency on free access to a small set of locally-available tools, individuals build familiarity and comfort with the professional process of sending specifications to fabricators, preparing design documents in accordance with industry standards, and become knowledgeable about and accustomed to the true cost of rapid prototyping.
As capital, operating, staffing, training, and maintenance costs are minimized, budgets can be refocused to support the recurring operating costs of external fabrication. The "Engineers don't MAKE things" philosophy can then be seen as not only advantageous and economical for top-tier universities but also as a viable strategy for smaller universities to begin producing high-tech outcomes that follow and eventually advance global best practices, no longer limited by the vast capital outlay required to establish on-premises manufacturing. Specifically, in locations without a well-established ecosystem of precision fabrication, this approach can also help avoid concentrating and concealing the machinery of prototyping inside ivory towers. When universities and research centers habitually seek external manufacturing as a primary means of prototyping, entrepreneurs will be incentivized to create businesses to meet those needs. In turn, and in contrast to the on-premises model, the general public then likely has commercial pathways to commission work on precision machines that are not sequestered in university labs; thereby, empowering a broader group of humans to explore and innovate.
Over the years, the Engineering Design Studio (EDS) has been known by a number of names, including superLab and IdeaLab; though, its underlying mission and trajectory have remained fundamentally unchanged. It's worth noting that the notion of a single "lab" from 2010 to present, despite inhabiting a number of different physical spaces, is connected to the spaces designed and operated by Matthew Karau in support of student innovation at NYUAD.
From 2010 to 2015, the EDS was known as "superLab" during the period when it was located in the Center for Science and Engineering (CSE) in Mussafah as well as during its first two years on NYUAD's Saadiyat Island Campus. This name stemmed from the “superLab” nickname for the Design and Innovation course taught in the lab.
In 2015, as others sought to establish an entrepreneurship incubator at NYUAD, the EDS was temporarily co-branded as “Idea Lab”. The efforts of the “Idea Lab” team were eventually spun-off into “StartAD”. It’s worth noting here that the “Idea Lab” name was chosen by NYUAD leadership without the consent of Matthew Karau or the staff of the EDS. This is an important distinction to make, since IdeaLab is a well-known “startup studio” in California founded by Bill Gross in 1996. Using the “Idea Lab” name was a point of confusion to many, as it wasn’t clear to the global entrepreneurship community whether this was a new, independent venture or whether the government of the UAE had partnered with Idealab, inc. in California.
As the activities of StartAD became an independent entity, from 2016 onwards, the lab moved from being known as “superLab” to being officially called the “Engineering Design Studio”. This, too, was not a unique name, but it established a clear brand for what “superLab” had been throughout its first five years, and represents what it continues to be today, a “Studio” for students to engage with the strategic, intentional, and systematic thinking, planning, and execution of “Engineering Design” for projects with ambitious goals that reach beyond what would fit nicely into typical course structures.
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