Engineering Sciences 21: The Innovators’ Practice

The fall course was created by Dr. Beth Altringer from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. It has been described as “Harvard’s real-world obstacle course for practicing innovation“. Student teams from the first two years of the class have won awards, including the Dean’s 100K Cultural Entrepreneurship Challenge and various funded fellowships to continue developing their ideas beyond the classroom.

Think of it as a startup obstacle course – You will experience the most common product and team challenges that early stage startups face, learn how researchers analyze these issues, discover how top companies deal with them, and apply these lessons in real time to your own project. The Innovators’ Practice is a hands-on course on idea creation & development based on a deep understanding of human and organizational behavior.

NEW! This year our class is collaborating with cutting edge organizations in Detroit, New York, Italy, Canada, a Native American reservation, South Africa, and Argentina who are working on radical projects related to ‘The Future of Living’. These support networks can help give your ideas a boost, and may lead to opportunities to continue building your ideas beyond the class.

Limited enrollment – Sign up soon! (SEAS ENG-SCI 21 / GSD SCI627100)
Professor – Dr. Altringer
First class – Wed, Sept 3, 9-11am, Pierce Hall 301
Open to – Undergraduates, graduates, & multiple disciplines
Prerequisites – Instructor permission (

ES21 Design Challenge

You spend the first week deeply exploring themes you are passionate about, and your challenge is then: to develop a tangible project that excites you, is designed to fit into and potentially improve people’s lives, and has real world, measurable impact by the end of the term. You can pursue any topic, and are guided through a multi-disciplinary, behavior-centric design process (built on the human-centered design process used at IDEO, Continuum and the Stanford Institute of Design, and modified based on Dr. Altringer’s research on teams in these and other highly innovative organizations). You work with students who share your interests to build professional, innovative, impact-oriented projects (e.g., publications, products, services, apps, events, policy guides, videos, etc.) that are designed with a deep understanding of human behavior to integrate into and potentially improve the lives of end-users. The student-produced clip on the right describes their experience in the first half of the class.

ES21 Simulated Real World Context

Dr. Altringer creates an innovation culture similar to leading design firms like IDEO, and the class simulates challenges that professional innovators face (so students can learn approaches to overcoming them). In the seminar, students discuss project experiences and readings, and learn how to find ideas worth pursuing, collaborate effectively, negotiate strategy, overcome common hurdles in the team innovation process, plan and lead creative projects, and more.

Course Creator and Professor: Dr. Beth Altringer

Why Take ES21?

Reason 1: You are excited about the class challenge to develop a tangible project that excites you, and has real world, measurable impact by the end of the term

Reason 2: Great ideas alone are not enough (and you don’t need them to take this course)
Great ideas (and highly capable entrepreneurs with great ideas) fail to have impact all the time, and for many reasons. Like anything, innovation (or creating ideas with impact, as we broadly define it in this class) benefits from practice and specific learnable skills.

Reason 3: Other people will determine whether your ideas are influential or not
Whether inside your design team as you’re building your idea, or once you’ve released it to the world, other people will determine whether your ideas are influential or not. Fields like human-computer interaction, human factors and environmental psychology have integrated insights from psychology and design for many years; however, experiential courses at the intersection of psychology and innovation are relatively rare (two notable exceptions are Stanford’s BJ Fogg and Julian Godorsky).

Reason 4: Understanding human behavior helps you become a better innovator
Successful innovators develop skills in understanding human behavior in two fundamental areas: collaborating effectively with others to bring an idea to fruition, and learning from potential users to develop solutions that people will actually want and use.

Reason 5: You can learn to design things people want to interact with
There are multiple ways to learn from potential users’ needs, struggles and behaviors. In ES21, you learn how to study user behavior, observe the challenges people encounter with existing solutions, extract patterns and identify novel innovation opportunities from these. This class goes beyond approaches that rely on users to tell you what they want or will use in the future (people tend not to be very accurate with these predictions).

Reason 6You can learn to collaborate more effectively
Today, most innovation originates in teams, and often involves working across disciplines, cultures, locations and organizations. Although we know that people can learn to work better in teams, training in this area tends to occur after graduation, and to be limited to trial and error with limited feedback. In ES21, at each stage of your project development, we’ll be discussing readings on effective collaboration and leadership that are directly applicable to your experience.

Is ES21 compatible with other innovation classes or initiatives at Harvard?

Absolutely! ES21 teaches you specific methods for overcoming many of the under-represented (people-oriented) challenges facing innovators, designing things that fit with human behavior (which may be big or small ideas), and creating measurable impact within the constraints of the term, and these skills will likely help you in other classes and projects you take on. Past students have built on skills learned in ES21 in various ways: as entrepreneurs in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab; as entrepreneurs attracting initial funding; as students or teaching fellows in other innovation courses at Harvard; and in various roles linked to technology and innovation in large companies.

Selection of ES21 Affiliated Experts

Dr. Altringer brings together a diverse network of affiliated experts linked to ES21 from industry and academia who are interested in some aspect of designing for human behavior at the cutting edge of their field. Students have the opportunity to share insights with affiliates who share their passions. We discuss the affiliates, and their interests, in the second week of class.

  • Louis Joseph, Puma, Head of Strategy & Innovation
  • Burak Cakmak, Swarovski, Director Corporate Social Responsibility (formerly head of CSR for Gucci Group and Gap)
  • Prof. Jonathan Zittrain, Co-founder of Berkman Center for Internet & Society, professor at Harvard Law School, Kennedy School and SEAS
  • Yanni Alexander Loukissas, Principal, MetaLAB; Lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Design; Fellow, Berkman Center for Internet & Society
  • Multiple, Quirky
  • Multiple, Google
  • Lee Zlotoff, Creator, MacGyver
  • Dr. Anas Chalah, Director, Harvard SEAS Teaching Labs
  • Avinash Uttamchandani, Jordan Stephens & Peter Kjeer, Design Preceptors, Harvard SEAS Teaching Labs
  • Suelin Chen, Senior Analyst at PriceSpective, former Director Lab at Harvard
  • John Gale, Regional Director, Rocky Mountain Region, National Wildlife Federation
  • Patrick McKenna, Serial entrepreneur and investor
  • Chad Callaghan, Business Strategist, Continuum
  • George Ko, Founder, Politoscape
  • Yasi Baiani, Fournder, Active Pepper
  • Josh Wexler and Eli Bozeman, Co-Founders, Occom Group
  • Neal Doyle, Manager of Operations, Harvard iLab
  • Rodrigo Martinez, IDEO, Head of Life Sciences (biologically-inspired design)
  • Jaspar Shelbourne, J. Walter Thompson, Global Creative Director
  • Prof. Conor James Walsh, Harvard SEAS, Professor and serial medical device inventor
  • Dr. Molly Crockett, Wellcome Trust Fellow, Neuroscientist of social and economic behavior
  • Paul S. Sennott, Stern Shapiro Weissberg & Garin LLP, Patent Lawyer
  • Dr. Joe Zinter, Yale University Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, Associate Director
  • Jose Colucci, Senior Designer and Engineer, IDEO

Class Structure and Content

The class is structured to teach you two streams of content, both having to do with behavior + design. In one stream, the innovation practice, you’ll develop your projects and gain experience with human behavior-centric design methods. In the discussion seminar, you’ll learn about leading creative projects, creating a culture of creative collaboration and more.

The skills you develop in this course, though focused on specific projects, are broadly applicable to your future collaborative creative projects at Harvard and beyond.

2014 Final Presentations

Come learn what Harvard student teams have invented in Fall 2014! Check back for final details and RSVP link nearer the date.

2013 Student Work

SWEET SPOT is an online resource connecting independent workers with free workspaces and skill sharing opportunities in their city. The Sweet Spot team is interested in the future of work and how it applies to the rapidly growing independent worker population. This multi-disciplinary team is composed of three Harvard students: Rachel Moranis (Graduate, Design), Sara Li (Undergraduate, Economics), and Kevin Garcia (Undergraduate, Psychology). Their initial interests were rooted in curiosity about the benefits and pitfalls of a very flexible work environment. How do freelancers, entrepreneurs, and artisans stay productive? Through our research, we found that there are even more important issues this population faces and they are: loneliness, a need for feedback, and the burden of administrative work. Sweet Spot is about designing an impactful resource and community for the growing needs of America’s freelancers. The team is continuing development in 2014 at the Harvard Innovation Lab.

PIVOT is a convertible chair attachment that provides employees working in an open plan office a way to tailor the degree of privacy at their individual work spaces, maximizing productivity in an office environment that can often times prove distracting. The original team (Diane Choih, Jeffrey Holland, Teis Jorgensen, and Starr Wen) began their project researching student stress, quickly honing in on stresses that surround studying. They found that the greatest source of stress was not time management or the intensity of study required, but balancing the competing desires for social interaction and individual focus during study. They later identified a similar tension in the workplace, and pivoted to exploring how we could help professionals thrive in the open plan office. This idea is continuing development in 2014. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more.

I VS. PHONE is an app to increase consciousness of cell phone use. The I vs Phone team is comprised of two undergraduates from Harvard College, an architecture student from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and a Harvard Law School student. In their initial brainstorming session they quickly bonded over a shared desire to spend less time on their cellphones and more time with the people they cared about, and the building blocks for the I vs. Phone app were in place. They refined the idea after performing fieldwork and discovering individuals were often engaging with their phones in unconscious ways. Their app in its current form gamifies cell phone use to make people more aware of the relationship they have with their phone. Adding in competitive elements and location-aware filtering services differentiates the app from other offerings on the market, and the in-app reward system provides several monetization opportunities beyond traditional in-app advertising. This idea is continuing development in 2014.

LIFE GUIDE is a self-service website and mobile app that enables and empowers people to navigate personal and professional crossroads.At the beginning of the research process, they were interested in exploring the topic of mentorship. They assumed that mentors can provide guidance to people at personal and professional crossroads, but that there are many unsuccessful mentoring relationships and many potential matches to be made. Our fieldwork research revealed that while most people seek guidance at crossroads, appropriate and objective guidance can be hard to find; mentors may not consider all aspects of a person’s life; and no single person has all of the answers. Their solution is LifeGuide, a self-service website and mobile app that empowers users to make decisions that incorporate all aspects of their lives and align with their values. LifeGuide integrates many existing services, including a self-assessment, goal and moment tracking capabilities, and inspirational resources. The platform allows users to reflect upon their past choices and to advise themselves on future decisions. This team is actively seeking partnerships in 2014.

TIMELINE is a new breed of clock that not only tells what time it is, but how that time is being used. The Time Line team is made up of Connor Cook, a Freshman at Harvard college from San Francisco interested in architecture and design; Wendy Engler, a visiting professional architect originally from Venezuela who is currently living in Miami; Wenting Guo, a Masters in Design candidate at the GSD, originally from Beijing; and Miles Hyman, a Freshman from Springfield, Massachusetts studying engineering and computer science. They created Time Line to tell users not only what time it is, but how their time is being used. Time Line is a wall clock and timer that interacts with a phone application to create an artistic visual representation of one’s time usage. This team is actively seeking partnerships in 2014.

2012 Student Work

POSTWORK makes making progress on your side creative projects easy and fun. – Ling Fan, Jennifer Ly and Mia Scharphie—This group was really interested throughout the term in exploring how people can participate more in the design and production of products. Traditionally, all you could do is ‘buy’ or ‘not buy’, but increasingly, technology opens up other avenues. They realized during fieldwork that a lot of people are ‘frustrated makers.’ They have creative goals and aspirations, but the daily grind does not support them. Their app makes it easy and fun to find other people and events that support your creative goals.

CULTURE CLASH fuses “high culture” with mainstream entertainment, making art less intimidating. – Hena Haines, Jennifer Jeffrey and Nataliya Nedzhvetskaya – This group was interested in expanding access to the arts, and particularly the type of arts considered ‘high culture,’ such as ballet, opera and fine art. In their fieldwork, they learned that patrons are literally dying off and younger generations are not particularly interested in traditional cultural offerings. Young people are, however, engaging in ‘culture’ but they are consuming media design for shorter attention spans and immediate interaction. Instead of trying to change behavior, their idea fits into it, and finds ways to link ‘high culture’ to current media, entertainment and news.

MOMENTS makes sharing photos easier than ever before. – Akua Abu, Judy Sue, Chenglin Yuan and Hansley Yunez—This team was interested in exploring ways to harness the benefits of virtual and proximal social networks. Based on their behavioral research, they created a privacy-focused, easy-to-use photo-sharing app. This group learned during fieldwork that many people on a trip or at an event, though they fully intend to share photos afterward, often do not. This is partially because of privacy concerns (e.g. not wanting the photos to appear on Facebook), and partially due to ease-of-use once people return to their busy lives. This app uses geo-location information from photos to figure out when people are together and automatically upload photos taken to prompt the user to very easily share with others. Unlike existing products, it is deeply privacy focused, and does not track users.

WEARHOUSE makes it easy, convenient, fun, and low-cost to experiment with your wardrobe.
- Jeff Fischer, Parsa Kamali, Kara Kubarych and Josh Shih -
This group spent much of the semester exploring ‘how to design the awkwardness out of group payment situations’ and looked a lot at whether technology can facilitate value exchange in ways that money cannot do well. They became interested in fashion, in particular, and how to help women capture and share value out of the 80 percent of their closet that they don’t tend to wear regularly. Their idea creates size- and taste-based groups who can effectively share their closets, checking items out from one another’s closet sort of like a library.

Judy Fulton and Hokan Wong—This group grew out of another group (Moments) and their idea allows users to map songs onto physical space and make them overlap however much they want—which makes them blend the songs together and allows you to play ‘urban deejay.’ It’s pretty awesome and you could, for example, follow Beyonce’s walking playlist in NYC or find jogging playlists that allow you to listen to cool music, but also play with your relation to space.

PIXEL PARK – Reid Bergsund, Ryn Burns and Cassie Zhang—This group wanted to explore ways to improve the human-environment interface in urban settings, and spent their fieldwork exploring people’s relation to green space. They found that green space projects tend to be expensive, politically difficult to create and maintain, and concentrated in ways that benefit a privileged few who live close to them. They wanted to think of urban space as distributed ‘pixels’ and integrate it in small ways into the urban environment. The tiny planters fit into almost any space. They have air quality sensors in them that speak to an app that allows cities to map air quality throughout, to visualize trends in air quality, warn citizens with health problems to avoid problem areas and encourage joggers to find clean air routes.

MOTIVATING FITNESS – Imagine wearing headphones that could sense your heart rate and body temperature while you’re working out and adjust your playlist accordingly.
- Anne Liu, Elizabeth Lenczowski, Micah Stone and Alyx Daly—This team was initially interested in understanding the diverse ways people are motivated to stay fit. They ended up creating playful workout headphones that sense your heart rate and body temperature and adjust your music playlist accordingly. If your heart rate gets low, their demo plays ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to pump you up, and if it gets high, it plays ‘Enya’.

2011 Student Work

POLITOSCAPE makes it easy and convenient to explore the spectrum of political views by helping people identify and diversify their media ‘echo chamber’. This team united around the issue that, in a world where we increasingly consume information that corresponds to what we already find interesting, people are getting narrower in their views. This is likely to have broader educational, social and political ramifications that we do not yet fully understand. This group is building an algorithm that helps people identify and diversify their info/media consumption ‘echo chamber’. They are working on an algorithm and associated applications that can suggest alternative, quality viewpoints and information to users, and focusing their product on the upcoming 2012 election year. Politoscape  actively continued to develop beyond the classroom. They were accepted for residence in the Harvard Innovation Lab in early 2012,  went on to win the Institute of Politics Gov 2.0 competition for the “most innovative idea to reshape American civic life”. Read more in this article on Politoscape.

VACCINE TEAM is designing a cheap, reliable way to detect the freezing of vaccines during transport, which renders them ineffective. As they learned more about why their initial designs, which were largely focused on issues surrounding syringe technology, this team discovered important issues in stabilizing the vaccine cold chain, particularly when vaccines travel to developing regions, where control over the cold chain can be difficult. Existing technologies can show whether a vaccine has been overheated, often rendering it ineffective, though technologies for showing whether vaccines have been frozen are less reliable. This team is creating a simple solution that shows when a vaccine has been frozen, and where exactly in the cold chain freezing occurred.

DUO is a device allows loved ones to send simple, direct, tactile messages to each other through the intimacy of touch. A simple squeeze sends a pulse of warmth to your partner, child, or friend letting them know you are thinking of them, cutting through the noise of our increasingly plugged in lives. Many messages between intimate partnerships (close friends, family or partners) are relatively simple, and repetitive (e.g., ‘Thinking of you’… ‘Running 5-minutes late’…’good luck with your talk’… etc.). This team is creating a simple device allowing communication with close others through more visual and tactile means (e.g. non-text-based, non-verbal) that feel more natural to our brain’s way of organizing and processing information. For example, you might be able to ‘squeeze’ a message to your friend, that they would experience as a gentle squeeze through their device, or you could send a warming, cooling, or glowing sensation just to say hello.

GOMANGO is a novel mango transportation device for Haitian farmers that uses a suspension system to minimize bruising currently caused by burlap sacks in transporting mangoes, one of Haiti’s top agricultural exports. In September, this team framed their project challenge: How might we improve food storage solutions to improve the lives of Haitian farmers? Their project centers around the issue of mangos in Haiti (mango is the main agricultural product, and over 50% of the fruit gets damaged in transit from tree to town (Port au Prince), resulting in significant economic loss. The team is creating a low-cost container and components that can be used with existing sacks and crates to minimize bruising in transit, as well as exploring ways to productively use fruit that does get bruised to generate small-scale entrepreneurship.

WALKNTALK is a solution to combat loneliness for the elderly (and the rest of us!). It is for use in those down moments throughout an otherwise busy day, such as walking between meetings or classes, the mobile app called Walk N’ Talk automatically updates the availability status of each of a user’s close contacts based on variable such as time, location and Google calendar so that he/she knows whether or not it’s a good time to call. This team set out to work on solutions that would improve the lives of the elderly, and focused on specific tech-based solutions to help seniors stay more connected with their families. In their fieldwork in local senior care facilities, they learned that many seniors have huge amounts of free time, and are often plagued by issues of loneliness and independence, as well as chronic and acute health problems. Though loneliness is pervasive, they often worry about being a burden on their families, who are comparatively much busier, if they try to connect at inconvenient times. As their work progressed, this team realized that their idea of connecting people with too much (or too little) time in unobtrusive ways was relevant far beyond senior to family relations. The team is now building the tool for a broader target market.

NICELET is a living experiment in pro-social behavior change. It is a flexible, collaborative pro-social challenge platform that encourages people to develop positive habits. We take the big, aspirational goals that we all have and break them down into small, manageable daily tasks. We celebrate the completion of these tasks with contributions to local, social initiatives on behalf of our users, creating a multiplier effect for good. Nicelet: doing good made easy. This team was initially focused on how to improve the lives of marginalized populations, and soon realized that they were ultimately interested in helping people improve their own lives, and particularly in encouraging prosocial behavior in ways that also benefit the local community. Their product is a tech-enabled system that connects people around prosocial challenges and helps them make progress on goals that are important to them. In the process, they accumulate credits that get turned into tangible benefit for their local communities through an innovative public-private partnership funding model.

FONDU is a social productivity app that aims to fight procrastination by turning “getting things done” into a competition between friends. This team was inspired by the concept of ‘designing for better human decision-making’ and particularly wanted to help with a frequent human decision-making flaw: favoring short term impulse over long term gain. They initially were exploring ways to make budgeting easy and fun, and in the process discovered that they were more interested in working on helping people ‘budget’ time in ways that leverage what we know about human behavior. Their project focuses on leveraging social behavior – collaboration and competition – to help people combat procrastination in fun, productive ways that link to tangible intrinsic (getting work they care about done) and extrinsic rewards (social and other rewards).

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