Filling the gap: Engineering students help design new furniture

The Leonhard Building, constructed in 2000 and located on Penn State University Park’s West Campus, has not had a substantial renovation since it opened. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – When designing the Leonhard Commons, a new study and lounge space within the Leonhard Building located on Penn State University Park’s West Campus, project architects realized that their intended computer station design was not readily available on the market. To fill this space need, four industrial engineering students were selected to help design the new furniture via a four-hour long design charette.

Selected by Ling Rothrock, professor in the Harold and Inge Marcus Department of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering (IME), the final group consisted of seniors Claire Weiland and Carlos Norman, and juniors Alexa Ferchaw and Dhir Agrawal.

“I felt honored to be selected,” Weiland said. “This experience allowed me to give back to the Penn State industrial engineering community by voicing my opinion, which will last for years to come. I am excited to see what the end result looks like and can’t wait to come back to visit as an alumna once it’s completed.”

Located outside the Factory for Advanced Manufacturing Education (FAME) Lab, the collaborative computing area was intended for groups of three to four students to use complex software on multiple displays while also having access to whiteboard space, a pinup area and paper layout zone. 

Chuck Rudalavage, education, civic and culture practice leader for Gensler, an architectural firm, realized that this gap in the market could be a candidate for new product design while providing a learning opportunity for IME students.

“It makes perfect sense to consult the end users, the students, who will derive the most benefit if it meets their needs,” Rudalavage said. 

Rothrock hopes that the new configuration of the space will encourage students to visit the building more.

“This was the most fun project that I worked on as interim department head,” said Rothrock. “The Leonhard Building lobby doesn’t feel very student friendly at the moment.”

The construction for the space began on Sept. 14, 2020. Credit: Penn State / Penn StateCreative Commons

However, the group was met with an additional complication: when the time came for design sessions in mid-April, state mandates for COVID-19 moved University work and course delivery online. Despite the curveball thrown into their in-person meeting plans, the session attendees continued working by meeting virtually via Zoom, a video conferencing platform, to discuss plans, ideas and new concepts for the space. 

The group was also comprised of representatives from the College of Engineering, including Rothrock; Craig Dubler, associate director of facilities; and Susan Williams, facilities representative. Rudalavage and Jill Sirota, design manager, represented Gensler.

Dubler noted that he was anxious about the notion of holding an online design meeting but was “blown away” with the students’ ability to drive conversation and keep the team engaged on Zoom.

He explained that hearing the IME students share their experience of where and how they typically collaborate, along with what is important for current and future students, provided the design team with valuable insight.

“The students were able to draw on the screen and provide the team with extremely valuable feedback,” Dubler said. “This furniture will truly be custom designed by students with their vision of increasing collaboration. I can’t wait to see the finished product in action.”

Additionally, Rudalavage and Sirota explained that the pandemic has caused many people to rethink the nature of work, learning, collaboration and more. 

“Running a design charette is no exception,” Rudalavage said. “Sometimes our minds and mouths were still moving faster than the capability to virtually sketch via Zoom, which is something we don’t experience when we're working with a group face to face. The positives far outweigh this small negative, though. We were able to create a design, with student input, in an environment devoid of geography.”

For Agrawal, who is currently at home due to the pandemic, said the opportunity was a unique learning experience for his future career. 

“As an engineer, teamwork is important and I think that this prepared me for the collaborative working world after graduation,” Agrawal said. “This opportunity puts action behind the words that ‘as a Penn State student, you are not just a number: you are valued here and your voice matters.’”


Last Updated December 17, 2020