New Wond’ry makerspace, design class boost children’s hospital solutions

Austin Webster, right, a senior double anthropology and cognitive studies major, explains her team's mobile redesign. (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt University)

Solutions to real-life problems at Vanderbilt’s children’s hospital ranged from the delightfully whimsical to the disarmingly simple, with MBA students, engineering undergraduates and an anthropology major teaming up in a state-of-the-art makerspace.

The New Product Design and Development course, offered for 15 years by David Owens, professor for the practice of management and innovation, got a priceless boost this year. He delivered lectures on intellectual property and took students through exercises in the design process inside the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s new makerspace. They also used its work areas and equipment to build their prototypes.

In a screen-and-cubicle world, Owens said, opportunities to learn through tinkering are valuable but too rare. It’s one thing to talk about a solution and another to hand one to the client – which 16 students did tradeshow-style at the class’s end on Dec. 9.

David Owens

“It’s not surprising that the maker explosion is happening as our world goes more virtual,” Owens said. “It’s energizing to put something you made in front of people, and we never had the space before to do that very well. We were scraping for shop space.”

Instead, four teams stood in the bright and open Wond’ry, answering probing questions from medical pros and administrators about the value of their products.

The most fragrant booth offered a solution to workplace stress – a stick-on aromatherapy pad that allows users to breathe in lavender and eucalyptus, the designers said, plus shows colleagues that they may need extra understanding and support.

A few feet away, Adetayo Ajayi, a senior engineering science major, showed visitors a better way to ensure ventilation equipment is easy to access, sterilized and ready to use. All the tools fit precisely into a vacuum-formed plastic tray made in the Wond’ry, he said.

Austin Webster, a senior double anthropology and cognitive studies major, stood next to an unusual mobile that moves like a Ferris wheel rather than a merry-go-round. Her team was asked to come up with an entertaining, educational mobile that was easy to clean, easy to remove and gender-neutral.

The process started with talking to at least 10 hospital employees about the problem and how existing mobiles weren’t working, observing the problems firsthand and then designing potential solutions. Webster said team members quickly realized that engaging babies’ interest was more challenging than making the mobile easy to clean.

“We feature black and white patterns, high color-contrast patterns, reflective surfaces and spaces for parents to add pictures of themselves,” she said. “It’s good for development, because infants like to see faces of people they know, and making the rotation vertical helps them develop depth perception.”

Adetayo Ajayi, a senior engineering science major, demonstrates a better way to ensure ventilation equipment is easy to access and sterilized. (Susan Urmy/Vanderbilt University)

Webster said she’d always been interested in engineering and design, but never found an opening to explore it before this class. “I saw a presentation about the Wond’ry and heard about this class and thought it sounded amazing,” she said. “The course description even talks about wanting students from all different backgrounds. In anthropology, I have a lot of experience interviewing people from different cultures and not just considering solutions that fit your own needs.”

Using what they learned in cost-determining exercises, her team found they could make the mobiles for $15 and retail them for $30.

Owens teamed with private businesses to find problems to solve until three years ago, when Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital became involved. Cody Schmits, MBA’11, the hospital’s director of transformation and process integration, said the students never fail to impress.

“We hope they’re able to bring these products to fruition so we can use them in serving our patients, family and employees,” he said.

He was examining a simple solution for a task that takes countless hours of nurses’ days – checking to be sure IV needles inserted into the back of children’s hands are staying put. The problem is an opaque stabilizing guard that has to be moved every time for that check. The answer: A plastic window and a tiny LED light, which allows for easy nighttime checks the patient sleeps right through. The manufacturing cost: About a buck.

New Product Design and Development gets students thinking in a different way, said Kyle Eason, an MBA student on the IV team whose background is in accounting.

“You’re working with very talented engineers and very smart people from all different backgrounds,” he said. “The biggest thing I’m taking away is learning to adapt products to the needs of people. To know where products come from and what people do to get them to market is invaluable to my business education.”


Heidi Hall, (615) 322-6614
On Twitter @VUEngineering