ENGR X55: Finding Genuine Design Opportunities 2019


In this experiential course offered by UM’s Center for Socially Engaged Design (C-SED), students learn the skills of socially engaged design during the winter semester and then spend 6–8 weeks during the spring/summer immersed in a field site working with a community partner to identify potential design opportunities. 

Providing an opportunity for student teams to dive deeply into the front-end of design was intentional. “When we set out to design this course we were thinking about how little time students spend in a traditional design or engineering curriculum digging deep into understanding the context in which their design projects exist,” says Charlie Michaels, founder of this experiential course and Associate Director for Experiential Learning at C-SED. “In this course, instead of building or proposing a solution any kind, we spend our time getting to know and understand people experiencing a design challenge in their lives directly.” 

What does this look like in the field? Michaels says that this means “students coming face-to-face with communities – and with their own assumptions – while setting the stage for a co-design process that our partners can engage in directly.” 

In 2019, students worked with four different partners in Ecuador, India, and the United States to identify assets and needs and understand priorities around design challenges in specific communities. The deliverables included a presentation of findings to their partner with an accompanying report that provides in-depth descriptions of the methods, captured data, recommendations, and design insights from their work.

SETCO Foundation, Gujarat, India
4 team members representing: School of Public Health, School of Social work, Ross School of Business, College of Engineering

The SETCO Foundation focuses on healthcare, nutrition, education and
empowerment of women and children in the Panchmahal district of Gujarat,
India. Four C-SED students worked with SETCO Foundation to broadly identify the highest priority challenges facing residents of 4 rural villages in Gujarat to inform a more holistic strategy and direction of the foundation’s future work in the district. The students facilitated mapping activities, focus groups and conducted interviews in several hamlets (neighborhoods) to uncover these insights with the SETCO Foundation.


Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho Falls, ID
3 team members representing: Mechanical Engineering, Nuclear Engineering, Chemical Engineering

Idaho National Laboratory (INL) is hosting the construction of several first-of-a-kind advanced nuclear reactors – which may serve as critical components in the fight against climate change. However, their adoption hinges on the success of community engagement efforts. A complex history around nuclearization in the United States and globally has led to polarizing views and perceptions on the energy source. A C-SED student team of three students engaged with local leaders, decision-makers, and community members in several regions across Idaho to better understand prevailing perceptions of INL and nuclear energy. The project results are being used to inform INL community engagement and communication strategies around common themes from the team’s insights.


Nido de Vida, La Bolivarense, Ecuador
4 team members representing: School of Information, School of Public Health, College of Engineering

Through a partnership with Nido de Vida, a family-run educational and agricultural association in rural Ecuador, this student team of four members worked to map out the water sources in the area, as well as identify challenges, barriers, and health risks around these sources in Nido de Vida’s home community. The resulting research is helping Nido de Vida and the La Bolivarense community increase their understanding of what water sources exist, how they are being used, what might threaten the health of the community. This data is informing possible paths forward to address local challenges related to water and deforestation.


City of Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovation,
Ann Arbor, MI

3 team members representing: School of Public Health, School of Information,
Stamps School of Art & Design, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts

Resilience Hubs are community-serving facilities designed to support residents and coordinate resource distribution and services before, during, or after climate related natural disasters. Students worked with the City of Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovation to understand what resilience means to Ann Arbor residents, how they prioritize challenges facing their neighborhoods, and perceptions around natural disaster preparedness and response. The results will inform the design and implementation of a resilience hub pilot in Southern Ann Arbor.

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