Collaborative Partnership with Cornell Tech Crosses the Boundaries between Disciplines
This semester, AAP students may find themselves working with future colleagues and company cofounders as they design and develop innovative products in a ground-breaking interdisciplinary partnership at Cornell Tech.
"We are collaborators, working together rather than simply adjacent to one another," says Cameron Nelson (M.S. MDC '21).
Nelson is participating in a pilot partnership that combines M.S. Matter Design Computation (MDC) graduate students and undergraduate architecture students at AAP NYC in collaborative projects with Cornell Tech students to develop digitally enabled solutions that address challenges posed by a diverse range of companies.
Launched on August 27, the partnership was advanced by Jenny Sabin, the Arthur L. and Isabel B. Wiesenberger Professor in Architecture and associate dean for design initiatives; J. Meejin Yoon, the Gale and Ira Drukier Dean of AAP; and Andrea Simitch, the Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow and architecture department chair. It springs from the college's priorities of creating interdisciplinary opportunities and pursuing cross-college initiatives in design.
The MDC program has grown by seven seats this semester, and those students, including Nelson, are part of the new program in New York City. They join Cornell Tech master's students in computer science, business, engineering, law, and health tech and connective media in the Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute. The MDC cohort is enrolled in three classes: Design Topic Research Studio: Matter Design Computation taught by Sabin; Special Topics in Visual Representation: Coding for Design taught by Panagiotis Michalatos; and Product Studio cotaught by Joshua Hartmann, chief practice officer at Cornell Tech, Karan Girotra, professor of business at Cornell Tech and the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, and advised by a cohort of faculty from the participating programs, including Sabin. With Product Studio also opened up to B.Arch. students at AAP NYC this semester, more than 300 students from nine programs are taking the class together.
Sabin has worked since 2011 to develop a graduate architecture curriculum that enhances collaboration within the college, the department, and the university. The MDC program launch in 2017, Sabin's recent appointment as associate dean for design initiatives, her transdisciplinary lab research involving collaborators and students in architecture and across the university, and her role this fall as inaugural faculty-in-residence at Cornell Tech are milestones in this process.
Sabin credits Yoon with crafting a strong presence for AAP within the unique model at Cornell Tech and for strengthening AAP's alliance with the campus's emphasis on entrepreneurial ventures and collaboration.
"Design is inherently interdisciplinary," Yoon says. "At a moment when the challenges facing the built environment and society are multiscalar, complex, and dynamic, the collaborative initiatives between AAP and Cornell Tech will give our students opportunities to engage in pressing questions across technology, human-centered design, and the built environment with an expanded perspective on the design challenges facing society today."
In the Product Studio, teams of up to six students were matched and connected to “How might we . . ?” challenges submitted by partner companies. Currently, the teams are conducting research to develop test prototypes for a variety of new products and will give final presentations and demos to their challenge company at the end of the semester.
Sabin says that as designers, architecture students have unique skills to contribute to the interdisciplinary teams.
"Our undergraduate and graduate students bring an ability to synthesize a set of complex relationships, form a plan, and follow through in a meaningful way," she says. "It's not only about problem-solving but problem generating."
"Our challenge is among the more abstract and open-ended of the 106 options that were initially presented," Nelson says. His team comprises an M.B.A. student, two computer science majors, and an electrical and computer engineering major. Their challenge — "How might we create a computer-controlled machine to unlock creativity and human potential?" — comes from Bantam Tools, a manufacturer of personal desktop CNC milling machines. "We've been encouraged not to start brainstorming right away, but to follow a design process that challenges the way some of us might be used to approaching problems," Nelson says.
Wen Jin (Daisy) Dai (B.Arch. '21) also stresses openness to new ideas and methods as key to working with their teams. "We come from different cultural backgrounds as well as academic and work experiences, so a key to working cohesively as a group is to be respectful of everyone's thoughts and opinions," she says.
Simitch sees this collaboration as a model for architecture as well as a radical extension of it. "Architecture pedagogy is by default a collaborative practice based on interactive dialogues," she says. "Dialogue with one's own work from drawing to model, between faculty and students, and between peers and colleagues, as well as our discipline's fundamental dialogue with our rapidly expanding contexts. MDC students bring their intelligence and diverse backgrounds to design projects that could be implemented and B.Arch. students bring their unique analytical and conceptual design skills to the interdisciplinary prompts."
"We can toss around the words interdisciplinary and collaboration, but the process requires time, trust, and meaningful relationships," Sabin concludes. "An important outcome of the program will be that our students learn how to communicate across disciplinary boundaries through hybrid thinking in design to arrive at a specific deliverable. I'm excited to see what they do and how what we do well in educating our students strengthens their facility for expanding collaboration."
By Patti Witten