In the fall of 2012, undergraduate students enrolled in Design Thinking and Communication, a required course for freshmen at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering, experienced the process of designing and creating temporary prosthetic fittings for amputee patients who had lost either the whole or part of their arms.

In the first part of the two quarter course, students usually have a service-oriented design challenge, whereas the spring allows student teams to work on a diversity of design challenges, focusing on real-world problems provided by real clients, according to David Gatchell, PhD, director of manufacturing and design engineering, clinical associate professor in the Segal Design Institute and a professor of the course.

“The course is designed to introduce students to the fundamentals of the design process. We see the communications training as an integral part of that process which, among other things, helps the students learn best practices for correct and complete data gathering, analysis and synthesis,” Kathleen Carmichael, PhD, a lecturer at the Northwestern Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program and a professor of the course, told O&P Business News.

Innovative projects

Each section of the course has approximately 16 students, allowing for four teams of four in each section. Each section also receives their own project for the quarter, ranging from prosthesis fitting for amputees to protective footgear for penguins. The goal by the end of the course is that the students learn to work together in teams to develop a design solution that meets the needs of stakeholders, clients, users and the public.



The Design Thinking and Communication course develops competence in sketching, hand and power tools and 3-D printers.

Images: Kathleen Carmichael

“Our client [for this section of the course] was Kelly Lee, CP, whose practice is in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago,” Gatchell told O&P Business News. “Over the years she’s seen that current practices were having a lot of problems creating 
temporary fittings for upper arm prosthetics. So she came to us asking if we could come up with a better [design].”

However, never having worked with amputees or prosthetics before, the students were unable to fully understand the problem until 3 weeks into the 10-week quarter.

“We didn’t know what we had freedom to adjust and where we were constrained. We were told that they wanted length adjustments and wrist adjustments, so teams worked on these separately,” Gatchell said. “It was an investigation where the students had a wide open problem that they weren’t sure how to constrain, but once we started to understand that the terminal device was going to constrain part of it we understood where we could explore and have flexibility.”

What Gatchell and Carmichael claim to be one of the key components of the course — and what seemed to help the students understand and improve their prosthetic design the most — is the user testing all students are required to do.



Jacob Bruce, Elaine Lokken, Alex Lee and Ellen Zhuang display the Triumph prosthesis. 

“Once you start generating concepts you have to user test, which is obvious, but people don’t do it enough,” Gatchell said. “Our students will usually do three to four rounds of user testing and it’s amazing how their ideas will evolve through the process.”

After the students began to understand exactly what they were looking at and what they had to do, they quickly designed three prototypes. The CAREfit features two threaded telescoping aluminum tubes and two nested hemisphere-shaped wrist attachments. The Pro-ARM features sliding aluminum plates to allow for maximum length adjustability and a combination of ball joints, threaded aluminum blocks and spring steel connectors to provide the required adjustability to the wrist. The Triumph, composed of length-adjustable aluminim struts with ball-and-socket joints and a circular clamp to hold the terminal device, can be installed in 40 minutes, adjusted in 5 minutes and can support 30 lbs.

“We coached the students as carefully as possible so they extracted all the information 
about the potential use [of the fitting],” Carmichael said. “Ideally, patients wouldn’t be going fly fishing or riding their motorcycles or carrying a heavy suitcase with the temporary fitting, but they do. So the design has to be sufficiently robust so that it can handle anything and not fail catastrophically if the patients try to push the envelope.”

Creativity encouraged

Piloted in 1996 before becoming part of the curriculum in 1997, Design Thinking and Communications is facilitated by both communications and engineering professors who teach students how to communicate with supervisors, clients, users of the product and the general public, as well as to address real world problems by using the design process.

“I work with a lot of freshmen and one of the things I see is that when students are given the opportunity to work closely and practically with the engineering faculty in the application of the theoretical material they learn in their courses, they start to develop independent design ideas. They feel that engineering isn’t a field where they just have to learn things by rote but that they’re actually encouraged to be creative,” Carmichael said. “What I’ve seen in the past few years is that this class gives them the sense that there’s integration between the creative or artistic side of the design process and the hard quantitative engineering side. That makes them more sensitive to, not just baseline user needs, but the things that will really make a user enthusiastically adopt a design, such as its aesthetics.”



The Pro-ARM prototype was designed to accommodate both a transhumeral and transradial residua.

The integration of engineering and communications allows students to broaden their skills in both departments, so that they not only learn how to speak to various audiences, but also acquire general strategies for documenting the development of their design, testing procedures, and ethical concerns, all while developing competence in sketching as well as in the use of hand tools, power tools, and 3-D printers to prototype their ideas.

“We encourage critical thinking and gathering of evidence in making decisions,” Gatchell said. “When you design something you make a set of critical decisions and those decisions need to be made with the best information that you have. We really challenge students to reflect critically on their decisions at every step of the iterative design process.” — by Casey Murphy

For more information:
McCormick freshmen design prosthetic fitting solutions for upper-limb amputees. Available at: Accessed Jan. 10, 2013.

Disclosure: Carmichael and Gatchell are both employed by Northwestern University.

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