ME 206A&B: Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability– a two-quarter course offered by the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school) through the Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the department of mechanical engineering– will be featured in an hour-long documentary on PBS this fall.
The class, which is in its 10th year, has allowed 325 students to work with global partners in 14 countries to create products that improve the lives of impoverished people. This year, the 40 graduate students in the course are collaborating with five global partners to manage the design of 10 new products.
James Patell, a GSB professor and a member of the teaching team, said that the course aims to teach students valuable lessons that can be difficult to impart in a traditional classroom setting.
“We want students to have the experience of having taken a difficult project from beginning to end, to have worked on a real-world project for real people and to have developed the creative confidence that would enable them to be dropped down into any difficult, messy situation, to land on their feet and to make real progress quickly,” Patell said.
The class is open to students of all departments, and students from almost 30 programs have participated. More than 130 students applied for 40 spots in the course this year. Patell said that when reviewing applications, he and the teaching team focus more on a student’s enthusiasm than his or her major or program.
“First of all, we’re looking for people’s passion [and] if they’re really committed to this,” Patell said. “It’s a big undertaking, and we’re looking for people who really want to make it happen.”
Additionally, the teaching team looks for students with the right combination of specific skills needed by the courses’ global partners. For example, in a year with predominantly medical partners, the teaching team will pick more students with medical backgrounds.
According to Patell, several products created during the course have become extremely successful. D.light, a solar-rechargeable LED light developed by students in 2006 for use in Myanmar, has sold almost three million products in 40 countries.
Patell also referenced Embrace, a low-cost infant warmer originally designed by students in 2007, as another notable product developed during the course. Hospitals and orphanages around the world now use Embrace, which students created in partnership with Medicine Mondiale.
Seth Norman MBA ’12, who took the class in 2010, worked with hospitals in Bangladesh to create an infusion pump that functions with any type of IV bag or tubing. Such a pump reduces costs for hospitals by eliminating the need to buy more expensive bags and tubes from American or British companies.
Norman cited the ability to meet and work with students from other programs as one of the class’ distinguishing appeals.
“The biggest things that I learned dealt with having different types of people on the same team, people who work differently and have different backgrounds,” Norman said. “At the same time, the biggest challenges were sorting out the process of working as a team.”
While Norman called the class a “life-changing experience,” he acknowledged that the course also offers a heavy workload and experiences potentially beyond some students’ comfort zones.
Ralph King ’78, who produced and co-directed the documentary, originally learned about the course as a staff member at the GSB. He audited the class in 2010, traveling to Myanmar with a project group, and was inspired to create the film.
“I was just filled with what I’ll call ecstasy because for the first time in 25 years [as a journalist], I understood the difference between gathering facts and observing with an open heart,” King said. “Not only did I have an insight for the team that helped in the design of the product, but I had a sense of a new capacity within myself to take in information that wasn’t strictly factual but on an emotional level.”
King raised $650,000 for the documentary and filmed from January to June 2011. His crew did pre-interviews with all 40 students in the course, eventually choosing to focus on three who were articulate, emotionally honest and interesting to a general audience, according to King.
The editing process took approximately a year, and the documentary premiered to a Stanford audience at a packed CEMEX Auditorium on April 9.
Patell said that he was satisfied with how the film depicted the course and the way in which King told the story of three specific students’ experiences.
“I think overall, Ralph did a good job of acknowledging the flow of what goes on, but the story is about the students,” Patell said. “He picked three students on whom he focused, and it’s much more the story of their three personal experiences, what they did, what they felt, how they changed.”