The two-year, four-term MDE program is built around a core of engineering and design methods that involve gaining understanding of complex challenges, imagining novel solutions, and building and assessing prototypes.

MDE core teaching is complemented with exposure to economics, business, psychology, and sociology.

A fun picture of the IDEP student group celebrating in front of Gund Hall, home to the Harvard Graduate School of Design. Nine students are seated in the front row, with eight standing in the back. Most students are smiling, laughing, or throwing their hands up in the air.
Six people around a table reviewing and sorting printed materials. The focus is on a man and woman reaching across the table to place it in an open spot.

MDE students enter the program with an astounding range of professional profiles. While they share the same passion for positive change and all acquire a common set of skills, they ultimately retain (and craft) diverse profiles through their highly personalized journeys at Harvard.

Students take the equivalent of four courses per semester over two years. This includes studio courses and is complemented by a series of public lectures and intimate discussions with prominent innovators, designers, and thought leaders in business and industry.


The two-year MDE curriculum includes required MDE courses and studio in the first year, the Independent Design Engineering Project (IDEP) in year two, and electives throughout the two-year experience. The approach balances maximum flexibility to customize a course of study while ensuring that every MDE student acquires a shared set of core skills, methods, and techniques in the design-engineering space.

A chart mapping out the coursework for Year 1 of the MDE program, divided into Fall & Spring. Collaborative Design Engineering Studio and Integrative Frameworks for Technology, Environment and Society take place throughout the whole year. In the Fall students take either CS50 and one elective or two electives. In the spring students take two electives.
A chart mapping out the coursework for Year 2 of the MDE program, divided into Fall & Spring. Over two semesters MDE students work on an Independent Design Engineering Project individually or in small groups, and engage with stakeholders to develop and assess a prototypical solution to a societal challenge of interest to them. In the Fall students take three electives, and in the Spring they take two.

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

MDE studio is a place, a pedagogy, and a mindset. It is a fast-paced, collaborative, open-ended yet structured environment in which students are guided by faculty to collectively and individually understand complex problems, imagine novel solutions, and build and assess prototypes. Student group projects involve iterative cycles of creative work that leverages the collective imagination, incorporates real-world data, and involves stakeholder engagement. Student work is critiqued and guided by interdisciplinary instructors to allow for iteration, reframing, and a deeper understanding of complex challenges in society.

Each year, MDE faculty commit to a domain within which students have ample freedom to identify problems they are passionate about. Examples of past domains include:

  • Food Systems
  • Health and Aging
  • Waste
  • Mobility
  • Telepresence
  • Energy, Carbon, and Society

Students pursue an independent project that addresses a real-world problem by applying and expanding the skills they’ve learned in the first year. Advised by two faculty, students build prototypes and assess the degree to which they achieve the desired impact.

Students are required to take two or three electives each semester at the GSD, SEAS, and/or other graduate schools at Harvard. Students without a background in programming are required to complete CS50: Introduction to Computer Science, whether online before entering the program or during their first semester. Elective choices are flexible and allow students to complement their backgrounds while expanding their design and engineering skills beyond those conveyed by core MDE courses.

Studio Topics

Each year, we commit to a single domain 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.

A photo by Héctor J. Rivas of a wall of thread spools making up a rainbow gradating from warm and neutral colors to cool colors.

2022 Textile Ecologies

The final review of a Collaborative Design Engineering Studio Project for Health Systems and Aging. Six people surround program co-director Martin as he uses a tablet to test the prototype. A projector sits in the left hand corner to project the simulation against the wall of a pod the team sits in.

Studio introduces students to the fundamental tools that enable transformative and integrative design: data analysis and visualization, human-centered design thinking, persona studies, quantitative analysis, modeling and simulation on multiple scales, and prototyping and experimentation. Past topics include:

  • Food Systems
  • Health Systems and Aging
  • Mobility
  • Waste
  • Telepresence and Telehealth
  • Energy, Carbon, and Society

Featured Collaborative Design Engineering Studio Projects

A data visualization for the Pharma 2100 projects, showing blue and red rectangles in quadrants for China, the U.S., and Italy.

Pharma 2100

An analysis of funding allocation in global pharmaceutical companies

A wide framed rendering of the Aretian Agricultural Foundation. The rendering shows a campus of several building, with the focus of a central building made up of three connecting triangular rooflines.


A proposal to understand to what extent farming operations can be expanded within the state of Massachusetts to promote food self sufficiency and resilience

A schematic of the Remesys prototype plan, reading 'Kinematics'.


A wearable device that reanimates the face will bridge gaps in emotional connection

Independent Design Engineering Projects

MDE students complete a project much like a thesis by taking on a real-world, societal challenge of their choice. Working with stakeholders, the projects leverage a combination of design and engineering methods with the goal of presenting a prototype at the end of the two-semester period.

Across all projects, stakeholder engagement is emphasized so that work is grounded in real-world problem-solving that positively impacts society and individual communities. Projects are reviewed and critiqued by faculty, as well as visiting professionals and content experts.

Barbara Alonso Cabrero speaking to a screen on her right: presenting her 2022 Independent Design Engineering Project on social media and civic engagement to her peers.
A rendering of the Raeda car prototype taken apart to show the individual components.

Raeda: Cabin Awareness for Autonomous Vehicle Fleets

Even if self-driving cars can navigate the roads safely, they currently lack scalable systems to respond to messy passenger behavior.

A close up mockup of the SimpleFuture service screens. A diagram overlays the mockups to show that SimpleFuture is the conduit between state treasuriees and the bank to match, verify, and transfer Unclaimed Property to its owners.

SimpleFuture: Providing A Better Financial Future

SimpleFuture redesigns the unclaimed property system to be more efficient and user friendly while improving customers’ relationships with their banks.

A screenshot from a video of the Eye for AI project. It shows a white city grid on a black background. The mouse scrolls over blue points on the grid and reveals a photograph from that location.

Eye for AI

Making a New City Image explores the machine-mediated perception of urban form: new ways of seeing, understanding and experiencing cities in the information age.

A close up angled shot of the Urdu keyboard on an iPhone

The Urdu Project

A Historical Analysis of Compromises Made to Adapt Language to Technology, and Designs to Adapt Technology to Language


Jua, which means “the sun” and “to know” in Swahili, is a digital-platform intervention that connects smallholder farmers to information and resources.

Smart Toilet Paper

A smart, disposable device to track your gut microbiome, with the goal of being both reliable and affordable.

See more Independent Design Engineering Projects in the archives.

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