Aliens invade first-year design course

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

This year’s incoming class of Systems Design Engineering (SYDE) students will be navigating their first semester at the University of Waterloo alongside visitors from the far-off planet TsTs.  

Tsts Poster In the first-year course, Introduction to Design (SYDE 161), students learn a user-centered design process that they will apply throughout their degree. The major assignment in the course this year asks students to use Engineering design methods to develop a solution to a problem faced by a very specific group of users.

Rather than the usual default of human users, students will design for aliens visiting Earth from planet TsTs. Students will be provided with a scale model of a TsTsian, cultural artifacts, and supporting information that they will need to design a solution for the aliens to navigate Engineering 5 (E5) and the University of Waterloo campus.  

The course balances whimsical elements with hard science. The planet is based on TRAPPIST-1e, an exoplanet in the habitable zone located 40 light-years away from Earth. Research shows that water is present on the planet, so the course instructor, Dr. Matt Borland, imagined that the surface is covered in several feet of deep marshland.

“TsTs’s inhabitants live partially suspended in water, so their legs are unable to support them on Earth without a mobility aid,” added Borland. “It creates a clear a challenge for students to solve while applying concepts from physics, anthropometry, and material science. Accessibility is an important aspect of our world that needs more attention. By looking through the eyes of these aliens, accessibility issues our students may have been unable to notice in their day-to-day life will hopefully become more visible to them.”

Other aspects of the TsTsians life on earth will help students make design decisions, like  TsTsiopometrics (an alien version of anthropometric data) and the physical dimensions and characteristics of the Engineering buildings that the students are studying in.

“Students have to think critically about things like Activities of Daily Living and how the TsTsians will use a toilet or take an elevator to get to the sixth floor SYDE classrooms. It gets students to empathize with their users and pay attention to their new environments here on campus since they have both found themselves in a new space, a long way away from home.”

Inspiration for this unconventional approach comes from a Product Design course taught at MIT Engineering in 1951. The course instructor, John E. Arnold, immersed students in a sci-fi universe with memos and drawings that detailed features of the aliens and their home planet. 

Using technological advances in the 70 years since the original course, Borland is giving students a more hands-on experience. He created scale models of TsTs’s aliens using SYDE’s onsite 3D printers so students can have a tangible object to work with whether they are on-campus or studying remotely this term.
Tsts 2Borland credits departmental support in bringing this idea to life. “An experimental course like this was made possible by the support of our amazing staff, in particular Zivojin Pantic, who 3D printed 120 of the aliens for our new SYDE students over the course of the summer. Credit is also due for creative and pedagogical support from SYDE Librarian, Dr. Kate Mercer, and to our department leadership for supporting me in trying out these extraterrestrial ideas."

FInished TsTsian“The models give students something to interact with as they create scale prototypes,” said Borland. “It also shows them the resources which are available to our SYDE students which they can later use to manufacture their prototype solutions as part of an iterative design process.”  

If you are visiting E5 this fall, look out for TsTsian posters and the design projects of our 2026 SYDE cohort.  

*Photos and images courtesy of Matt Borland.

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