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Using fashion to teach innovation at Harvard

An engineering class at Harvard University used fiber optics and circuits to build dresses that respond to the models’ heartbeat, position with respect to the Earth’s magnetic field, and the noise level in the room. From left, Samantha Whitmore, a physics student, modeled the compass dress, Sydnie Leroy, an archeology and evolutionary biology student, modeled the heartbeat dress, and Meisha Brooks, a mechanical engineering student, modeled the audio dress. Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Innovation is supposed to be a panacea for the economy -- the engine that generates life-saving treatments and must-have products. It’s a buzz word 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.

Anyone who has majored in a field of science knows the kind of discipline and effort required to run the gantlet of problem sets and labs. It’s laborious in a different way than closely reading a text or writing a persuasive essay, with sometimes unthinkable amounts of time spent troubleshooting a minor issue. It can sometimes feel like the equivalent of agonizing over the punctuation in a single sentence in a 20-page paper, knowing the whole thing could succeed or fail based on a comma.

But problems in the real world often require that same assiduous attention to detail, knowledge, and ability -- plus a willingness to dive in to undefined situations. Parker’s class takes a team of engineers-in-training and throws them at a real-world problem, with a real-world client. A previous class developed a tool to aid police working to quell gang violence, taking a page from the principles used to defeat counterinsurgents in war zones. This year’s theme was suitably broad, but required a real product at the end, too: 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 -- and a pitch for a technology it developed and hopes will form the basis of a startup company. The class members’ introductory PowerPoint showed just how difficult it can be to even figure out what problem to solve. They visited Los Angeles and started out working 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 Earth’s magnetic field she was standing, and another lit up more stripes 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.

Stephen Lee, a senior who is majoring in biomedical engineering, said that outside of the two scheduled classes per week, the team met at least twice a week on its own. Instead of grades and the fear of doing badly individually driving the students, there was a kind of “productive peer pressure” in force. If one person didn’t do his or her job, the rest of the team would not be able to meet its goal. 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.

In recent days, Lee said he and his partner, Kristin Barclay, spent 10 to 12 hours on the project each day -- work that involved sewing, soldering, debugging circuits, and deconstructing all that work to fix some unexpected problem that might range from how the fabric drapes to whether the sensors work.

The motivation was different. And so was the output and the way the students were evaluated. Unlike typical classes where there are problem sets, midterms, laboratories, and a constant stream of steady feedback, everything hinged on the product they pitched to the auditorium Wednesday night. After the presentation Tuesday, he gave Barclay, the electrical engineering major who was his partner in building the dress that responds to the Earth’s magnetic field, a big hug.


“We have no idea what our grades are,” Lee said. “We have no idea how we’re doing.”

Parker sees the underlying technology enabling responsive garments as having huge possibilities. The military might be interested in clothes that could display measures of health, such as the heartbeat of its soldiers. Hospitals might benefit from blankets that glowed if a patient’s oxygen level dipped too low, instead of beeping alarms or flashing screens that can be too easy to ignore.

At the start, “no one had a clue about how to get started,” Parker said. So the students began learning about the industry, the technologies, and how to sew -- by making pillowcases. As they researched technologies, they had to make painful decisions, abandoning ideas that weren’t working out or weren’t feasible for a particular application.

“I want to push them beyond the problem set,” Parker said. He is already kicking around ideas for next year’s class, and he’s been thinking they might be able to do something about destructive beaver dams.

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