Initial ideas to provide a place for students to collaborate on real-world engineering design projects was developed in the mid 1990’s by a group of Rensselaer faculty members. An innovative teaching space that would facilitate multidisciplinary participation was envisioned. The Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory was developed as a flexible space where students could collaborate with industry sponsors to work on real-world engineering challenges. A vision of the original Design Lab space included a conference area to facilitate teamwork, creative problem solving and project-based learning. Prototyping facilities and workshops would be configured adjacent to the conference area to allow students to build and test their designs and transform their ideas into reality.
The O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Lab (MDL) opened its doors in the Fall of 2000 thanks to the efforts of a dedicated team of faculty, enlightened administrators and supportive benefactors- most notably Robert O. Swanson ’58 and his wife Cynthia J. Shevlin. The Design Lab incorporated all of the intended features at its opening and has expanded on them over time. Rensselaer pioneered the approach of having engineering students from all departments work together in teams, similar to the professional workplace where technical staff from many departments work together to solve design problems. This innovative approach to engineering education was most unique at the time. It achieved international recognition and has since been implemented by other engineering schools. The Rensselaer Design Lab has engaged over 10,000 students in project-based learning experiences since its inception in 2000. Cadres of project sponsors have reaped the benefit.
Dr. Mark Steiner ’78, ‘87G, Clinical Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautical Engineering and Mechanics, was named Director of the MDL in January 2000. He served in this capacity from its launch through 2015 and was responsible for creation and operation of the MDL, and optimizing the experience for students and faculty working together in multidisciplinary design. Kathryn Dannemann ’80, ‘82G became the Director of the Design Laboratory in January 2017. Dr. Dannemann, Professor of Practice in Materials Engineering, returned to Rensselaer to lead the Design Lab following a career in industry. In addition to enhancing the student experience, she is collaborating with Rensselaer’s Lally School of Management and has included management students on multidiciplinary project teams with engineering students.