MDE students are systematically educated as critical thinkers, managers of complexity, and strategists capable of creating comprehensive assessments and prototypical solutions to cross-disciplinary problems with social, political, economic, ethical, and technical components.

The first-year curriculum provides an introduction to the necessary skills, techniques, and tools, along with the background knowledge needed to support innovation and effective cross-disciplinary collaboration. Year one introduces students in the studio setting to multiple tools that enable transformative and integrative design: data analysis and visualization, human-centered design thinking, persona studies, a range of qualitative and quantitative analysis methods, as well as an introduction to modeling and prototyping strategies on multiple scales. The studio is committed to project-based learning, involving multiple cycles of formulating a hypothesis, solution proposals, prototyping and preliminary user testing. The curriculum focuses on collaborative design engineering methods and design thinking for problem-solving, leadership, and management. The Integrative Frameworks class introduces students to topics and interconnections characteristic of the complex, intractable problems that MDE is challenging faculty and students to address in studio.

In the second year, students pursue a design engineering project much like a thesis by choosing a relevant area and identifying a suitable problem and challenge to address. Over two semesters MDE students work individually or in small groups, and engage with stakeholders to develop and assess a prototypical solution to a societal challenge of interest to them.

Students nominally take the equivalent of four or five courses per semester, and the equivalent of seventeen courses over two years. Each core course is taught jointly by GSD and SEAS faculty, and supplemented by visiting professionals who act as real-world specialists providing project-based direction.

Curriculum Diagram

Year 1: Integrative Frameworks: Technology, Environment and Society I/II

This required, two-semester course involves a combination of lectures, workshops, case studies, and classroom exercises, covering a range of topics that include: design thinking, system thinking, manufacturing operations, business strategy, industry architecture, government policy regulation, intellectual property and patents, ethics, and leadership.

Year 1: Collaborative Design Engineering Studio I/II

This two-semester sequence involves the entire student cohort collaborating on a real-world, multidisciplinary, complex domain. Each year we commit to a single domain - examples provided below - within which students have ample freedom to identify problems they are passionate about. Students are guided to engage with stakeholders and spend time outside the classroom doing field studies. Students learn how to understand the architecture of a complex problem domain, acquire compelling data visualization skills, get exposure to techniques for numerical modeling both on the system as well as the small object scale, and understand how to synthesize work on multiple scales. The goal is to teach methods for developing and prototyping innovative solutions, and present them in practical settings among peers and visiting professionals. Skill workshops throughout the first semester create a common toolbox from which students can work.

Prior studio topics: 

Food Samples

Food Systems

Food Ritual

Food Systems

Health Projects

Health Systems

Health Projects 2

Health Systems

Year 2: Independent Design Engineering Project I/II

Students pursue an independent project that is similar in scope to a master’s thesis. This project leverages the skills and insight acquired in the first-year studio and Integrative Frameworks, and applies them to a context of particular interest to individual students. The goal for the projects is to prepare students for the transition from the academy to practice by developing and prototyping solutions that can be tested and evaluated. Advised by faculty mentors from both SEAS and the GSD, regular group meetings serve as a platform for collective discussion with reviews as well as one-on-one critiques. 


Students are required to take two or three electives each semester at the GSD, SEAS, and/or other graduate schools at Harvard. Students without background in coding/programming are required to complete CS 50, Introduction to Computer Science, either online before entering the program, or during their first semester. The elective choices are flexible and allow students to complement their backgrounds, and pursue their interests and passions. The goal is for students to acquire entirely new skillsets while also diving deeper into particular subjects. During the first year, electives may be used to “top up” skills in engineering and/or design, or to advance skills in core areas, including analysis and visualization, fabrication and materials, design theory, and leadership and management.