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Science in Mind

Using fashion to teach innovation at Harvard

Sydnie Leroy (right) an archeology and evolutionary biology student, modeled the heartbeat dress, and  Meisha Brooks, a mechanical engineering student, modeled the audio dress, both designed by Matt Wagner (at left).

Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff

Sydnie Leroy (right) an archeology and evolutionary biology student, modeled the heartbeat dress, and Meisha Brooks, a mechanical engineering student, modeled the audio dress, both designed by Matt Wagner (at left).

Innovation is supposed to be a panacea for the economy — the engine that generates life-saving treatments and must-have products. It’s a buzzword used by high-powered people, ranging from President Obama to the chief executives of some of the most successful companies in the world. But is the current education system the best one to teach people how to innovate?

That’s the fundamental question behind Harvard University professor Kevin Kit Parker’s project-based engineering classes. There may be a big difference between being good at homework and being innovative.

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Parker’s class takes a team of engineers-in-training and throws them at a real-world problem, with a real-world client. This year’s theme was suitably broad, but required students to pitch a real product at the end: use engineering techniques to create a new fashion.

Tuesday night, the team took the stage at the Agassiz Theatre and presented the fruits of a semester’s worth of work. The class members’ introductory PowerPoint showed just how difficult it can be to even figure out what problem to solve. They worked with a high-end fashion designer; they consulted with an expert in neurobiology to better understand what visual patterns and shapes signaled to the human brain; they studied octopus camouflage and the cuttlefish’s amazing ability to blend in, to figure out how to make distinctive fashions that do the reverse.

The students started with a “designer’s nightmare” — the fact that an outfit can look one way under the skylights where it was created, and then take on a whole different hue under the fluorescent lights where people wear them. But the project evolved as the students began thinking about technologies that could give designers greater control over the color of their garments.

Ultimately, they broke with the high-end designer and spent long hours learning how to stitch their own dresses, which incorporated simple sensors and circuits connected to LEDs and fiber-optic cables.

The idea was to create garments that changed colors in response to various cues in the environment: one dress pulsed in time to a model’s heartbeat, another changed color depending on where in the earth’s magnetic field she was standing, and another lit up in response to the level of noise in the room. But they faced less traditional engineering challenges, too: how to get the fabric to drape properly and how to create a dress that would light up without burning the wearer’s skin.

The dresses modeled by fellow science students were far from ready for retail, but the effort put on display the creative thinking, problem-solving, and enormous amount of teamwork necessary to develop functioning prototypes.

Instead of grades and the fear of doing badly individually, students described a kind of “productive peer pressure” in force. Parker, who has served in the Army in Afghanistan, occasionally compared the dynamics of the class to the selection of special operation forces in the military, where in some tasks, the standard of achievement is never told to the participants.

Kristin Barclay, majoring in electrical engineering, said she spent 10 to 15 hours a week on the project — work that involved sewing, soldering, debugging circuits, and deconstructing all that work to fix some unexpected problem.

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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