EC.720J | Spring 2010 | Undergraduate
D-Lab II: Design


Course Meeting Times

2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session: a mix of lectures, in-class activities, labs,  guest speakers, and project work.


2.670 Mechanical Engineering Tools or permission of the instructor.

This course builds on EC.701J/11.025J/11.472 D-Lab: Development; however, it is not a prerequisite.

Course Goals

  • To learn about the design process
  • To develop technical solutions for underserved communities
  • To practice creative design in a real-world context
  • To learn hands-on prototyping and manufacturing skills
  • To develop problem solving and critical thinking skills
  • To recognize the potential impact of engineers in the world



D-Lab courses fall into three main categories: development, design, and dissemination. D-Lab: Design is a design studio course in which students learn about design and work to create technologies with underserved communities. Unlike other sector-specific courses, D-Lab: Design projects may address challenges in health, energy, agriculture, shelter, transportation, water, sanitation, and more. The course consists of case studies, hands-on labs, guest speakers, and a guided design process with biweekly review sessions with experts and professionals in development and design. Students work in multidisciplinary teams on term-long projects in collaboration with community partners, field practitioners, and experts in relevant fields. Students are exposed to many hands-on fabrication and prototyping skills relevant to product development at MIT and manufacturing in their partner community.

Mini Project

The mini projects help students gain more familiarity with the creative design process in a short period of time, while getting to know and bond with their classmates by working in teams.

We believe in learning by doing, and mini project teams are encouraged to try going through the entire design cycle for as many iterations as possible. It is incredibly difficult to get very far on a challenge in such a short time, but by the end of the mini project, teams usually have at least learned more about a topic and have built rough prototypes / models. Please see the mini project assignments for more information.

Design Challenges

As this is a project-based course, the instructors provide a selection of design challenges that are connected to strong community partners and are appropriate for a team of undergraduate students to make good progress on within a semester.

The challenges are often proposed directly by community partners or identified when D-Lab teams are working in the field. Students select challenges based on their skills and interest, and are grouped into teams that have a diverse set of skills and backgrounds represented. Considerations include making sure that each team has at least one person with strong fabrication skills who can help the team learn how to prototype, or at least one person with the necessary language skills to communicate with the community partner when applicable. In areas where teams may have limited knowledge and experience, they can consult with D-Lab mentors, design reviewers, staff, and other local experts.

It is important for teams to be in good, regular contact with their community partner throughout the semester, as the design project is a collaborative process and will not turn out well without input from people who are facing the challenges being addressed. After the semester, students may choose to continue their project by applying for summer fellowships to travel to their community partners and taking their work into one of the D-Lab classes focused on dissemination, such as Development Ventures, D-Lab: Dissemination, and D-Lab: Supply Chains.

Build-It Modules

Build-It modules are hands-on opportunities to learn how to use a variety hand tools, machine tools and prototyping equipment in project-based training sessions.

Students increase their level of comfort and confidence with working safely in the shop, while making devices that can be useful in the field, such as hand-held corn shellers and charcoal-powered heat sealers. Each project teaches a different set of skills, providing instruction in topics such as welding, sheet metal fabrication, water jet cutting, basic machining, computer-aided design and other topics that are particularly relevant to prototyping the design projects. Students choose which module to take based on their interest in the project / skills taught, and are encouraged to coordinate with their teams to gain a variety of experiences that they can then share with each other.

Case Studies and Guest Lectures

Instructors and guest speakers offer lectures and case studies on a variety of technologies and how they relate to design in developing countries. Students are then asked to apply the material presented in class to their own design projects. This aspect of the course varies from year to year; see the calendar for more information about what was covered this year.

Design Review Sessions

These are biweekly design reviews where teams present their progress and show their latest prototype to a panel of consultants, who offer feedback and guide students through the design process. Reviewers have included instructors from different fields, experts from industry, development workers and even D-Lab alumni, bringing a diverse range of experiences and perspectives from design, manufacturing, and field work.

Final Presentations

Teams show their final prototypes during the D-Lab Spring Showcase, held at the MIT Museum on a Saturday near the end of the term. The Spring Showcase is an annual event where D-Lab classes share their work from the spring semester with the MIT and greater Boston community. Student teams give short presentations/pitches and hands-on demonstrations of their projects. This is an opportunity for students to get questions and feedback from a larger audience and see what other D-Lab classes have been doing. The event is open to the public.

More about the Spring Showcase: D-Lab Showcases Technologies That Students Developed to Impact Our World


The required textbook is Polak, Paul. Out of Poverty. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2008. ISBN: 9781576754498.

Readings from a variety of other sources are also assigned throughout the course.

Course Logistics

Design Team Meetings

The design projects are an integral part of the class and will be done in teams of four students. Each group will schedule a project meeting time and will meet regularly throughout the semester. Meeting spaces at D-Lab are available for teams to use and tend to be stocked with white boards, flip charts, post-its, colorful markers, props and devices to fidget with, books and other resources to help with brainstorming and sharing ideas. The hallway also has boards for teams to post up sketches, ideas, questions and challenges to invite feedback from people passing by.

Collaborative Use of Work Spaces

The D-Lab workshop provides teams with access to prototyping equipment and space, as well as many different types of materials (including wood, metal, plastics, electronics, and agricultural substances).

There is also a D-Lab library with reference books and videos on many topics in development, which can be checked out. For any specialized equipment or resources that D-Lab does not have, students have access to other workshops and libraries on campus. Each team also has a small budget to purchase additional tools, materials and resources. There are transparent containers on shelves for project storage and a labeling system using colored tape for items that are difficult to move. Teams are asked to be respectful of the shared space, equipment, and materials by checking in about any uncertain items before using them, as the shop can be in a state of creative disorder when many people are working in there at once (including teams from multiple classes, D-Lab staff and student researchers). A shared space also provides many opportunities for collaboration – innovative new ideas often happen when people working on different things collide and cross-pollinate.


Safety is taken very seriously at D-Lab, and all students receive training and agree to the D-Shop rules before working in the shop. While students have the key code for 24-hour access the workshop, they cannot work alone and need to have a staff member present any time they are using unfamiliar equipment.

Shop Rules (PDF)

Attendance and Participation

A student’s presence and involvement in class is important, as most sessions involve discussion, hands-on activities and exercises. Much of this work is also done in teams and would be affected by absent students. For the design projects, the level of a student’s commitment and engagement will matter not only to the team, but to specific communities. As Amy often says, D-Lab is about working on real projects with real people, and with that comes a real responsibility.


This is a twelve-unit class: three hours a week will be spent in class, two hours will be spent in scheduled group meetings and the remaining time will be spent on readings, homework and design projects.

Because much of the work for this class will be done during class time, attendance is essential. Students missing a class meeting should notify the instructors in advance and make arrangements to make up the work. Missing more than two sessions (classes or project team meetings) without making up the work will result in a reduced grade.

This class is graded on an A/B/C/F basis. Furthermore, it is a class where your work is impacting the lives of people around the world and we expect an appropriate level of commitment.

Class participation and attendance 15%
Homework assignments and design notebooks 30%
Mini project 10%
Design review session 25%
Final design/prototype 20%
Course Info
As Taught In
Spring 2010
Learning Resource Types
notes Lecture Notes
group_work Projects with Examples
assignment Design Assignments
assignment Written Assignments
assignment_turned_in Activity Assignments with Examples