With 56 undergraduate majors, 58 minors, and 50 departments and programs offering graduate degrees, there is a dizzying array of choices. Inevitably, each student gets just a sampling of coursework—self-tailored to suit their tastes and ambition. But there are pedagogical themes that run across MIT, threading through an unlikely combination of classes. Design is one of these. In fields as diverse as aerospace systems, theater, and neurobiology, classes reveal approaches to design that are logical, practical, and rigorous. Here is a brief look at a few recent offerings.
Jump to a course:
→ 6.4420 Computational Design and Fabrication
→ 10.321 Design Principles in Mammalian Systems and Synthetic Biology
→ 21M.731 Sound Design for Theater and Dance
→ Unified Engineering: 16.001 Materials and Structures, 16.002 Signals and Systems, 16.003 Fluid Dynamics, and 16.004 Thermodynamics and Propulsion
→ 2.75 Medical Device Design
→ 16.83 Space Systems Engineering
Introduces computational aspects of computer-aided design and manufacturing. Explores relevant methods in the context of additive manufacturing (e.g., 3-D printing). The course covers tools for every stage in the computational design pipeline, from hardware and its abstraction to high-level design specification methods.
A cloth simulator that uses a fast and novel method for deriving gradients.
Professor Wojciech Matusik SM ’01, PhD ’03, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “Computing plays a more and more important role in design because it allows you to figure out what the best designs are and to translate them into something that can be manufactured. This could work for anything. It can work for molecules, for webpage design, for drone design, for products, and so on.”
Yifei Li, graduate student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “The class taught me useful concepts and fundamentals of the research areas and applications related to computational design and fabrication and prepared me to conduct relevant research. I highly recommend it.”
Kai Jia, graduate student, Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science: “Although computational design/fabrication is not my research area, I learned a lot during this class, and the final project led to a top-tier conference publication.”
10.321 Design Principles in Mammalian Systems and Synthetic Biology
Focuses on the layers of design, from molecular to large networks, in mammalian biology. Formally introduces concepts in the emerging fields of mammalian systems and synthetic biology, including engineering principles in neurobiology and stem cell biology.
Developing a computational model of dynamic synthetic gene circuits to identify how design choices at the DNA, RNA, or protein level impact performance.
Assistant Professor Kate E. Galloway, W. M. Keck Career Development Professor in Biomedical Engineering, Department of Chemical Engineering: “I hope students gain an appreciation for the diverse ways in which biology encodes functions. The layering of systems gives rise to rich and robust behaviors that enable complex processes to unfold with remarkable precision. Through the class, I hope they learn how we can integrate native design schemes into synthetic systems.”
Adam Beitz, graduate student, Department of Chemical Engineering: “In this class, I was able to design a model of the DNA damage response in mammalian cells that I continue to use in my PhD research. Overall, this class was great for learning how to model the regulatory mechanisms in biological systems and for designing new ways to engineer synthetic biological systems.”
Kasey Love, graduate student, Department of Biological Engineering: “It was exciting to apply engineering strategies to biological systems and explore the unique principles governing these molecular and cellular contexts. The concepts related to design that I learned in this class are directly relevant to my graduate studies; I have already begun to use this knowledge and experience in my research.”
21M.731 Sound Design for Theater and Dance
Introduces the elements of a sound designer’s work—such as music and sound effects that inform and make stage action plausible— to sound system design and placement and the use of microphones. Discusses how effective sound design enhances live performance by clarifying storytelling, heightening emotional experience, and making words and music legible to an audience.
An audio play adaptation of Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McCloskey’s iconic children’s book set in the Boston Public Garden.
Christian Frederickson, technical instructor, Music and Theater Arts Section: “My hope is that students will come away from this class hearing the world differently. Sound design for theater is the art of storytelling, and also a technical craft, but it’s only by really listening that we discover what stories we want to tell, and how to make them legible.”
Aquila Simmons ’23, double major in mechanical engineering and theater arts: “The class focuses on the different design elements of compiling sounds to reinforce an environment or to tell a story. We learned about quantifiable measures such as the different qualities of sound ranging from footsteps to music, and the number of sounds a person can distinguish before they blend into white noise. We also studied more artistic measures such as what sounds are comforting to an audience, and which set listeners on edge. It was a lot of fun learning to use the many different audio programs to edit and mold sound, and to consider listening to the world around me in ways I hadn’t before.”
Unified Engineering: 16.001 Materials and Structures, 16.002 Signals and Systems, 16.003 Fluid Dynamics, and 16.004 Thermodynamics and Propulsion
Presents fundamental principles and methods for aerospace engineering and engineering analysis and design concepts applied to aerospace systems. This class is taught within the context of the CDIO (conceive-design-implement-operate) framework. The goal is to educate the future leaders of the field on how to contribute to the development of new products in a modern, team-based environment.
Students, working in teams, conceive of, design, build, and fly an airplane in a competition.
Professor Zoltán Spakovszky SM ’99, PhD ’01, T. Wilson Professor in Aeronautics, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “Aerospace systems problems are complex and highly multidisciplinary in nature. Unified Engineering connects the core disciplines by leveraging common intellectual threads and equips the students with fundamental skills to characterize the underlying mechanisms, create conceptual models, and design new solutions to address the technical challenges of the future.”
Benjamin Rich ’24: “Unified Engineering provides a unique opportunity to get immersed in very modern, computational-based design practices as well as traditional design techniques built upon decades of physics and engineering fundamentals. For me, design is most fun when it is centered around a complicated problem, with many possible approaches to solving that problem. Combining computational tools with hand calculations and theory only adds to the fun!”
2.75 Medical Device Design
Provides an intense project-based learning experience around the design of medical devices with foci ranging from mechanical to electromechanical and electronics. Projects are motivated by real-world clinical challenges provided by sponsors and clinicians who also help mentor design teams.
A device to close an intracardiac defect, a cooling suit for astronauts, and an imaging device that aids in the detection of cervical cancer.
Associate Professor Ellen Roche, Latham Family Career Development Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science: “This class is a team project-based class where students team up with local physicians and industry sponsors to solve real clinical needs. They come up with a working prototype in 14 weeks and learn design fundamentals and the logistics of translating medical devices to the clinic, including regulatory, intellectual property, and commercialization aspects.”
Anup Sreekumar, graduate student, System Design and Management Master’s program: “This course introduced me to the world of medical devices, taught me key principles of design and engineering, and helped me apply these lessons to solving real-world challenges in health care.”
16.83 Space Systems Engineering
Design of a complete space system, including systems analysis, trajectory analysis, entry dynamics, propulsion and power systems, structural design, avionics, thermal and environmental control, human factors, support systems, and weight and cost estimates.
Students participate in teams, each of which is responsible for an integrated vehicle design. This provides experience in project organization and interaction between disciplines.
Associate Professor Kerri Cahoy, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics: “The students bring their expertise in aeronautics and astronautics from their undergraduate curriculum to the project and learn how to use their knowledge as well as identify other skills that are necessary to create a successful mission design through systems engineering.”
Mary Dahl ’20, SM ’22, teaching assistant for the class: “The students in this class have spent years at MIT learning and honing skills in aerospace engineering. This class finally gives them the opportunity to put them all together for a mission the class cares about. They learn the difficulties of integration of multiple subsystems and come out as well-rounded engineers.”