Using engineering savvy to improve product designs

When Edward (Ned) Burnell sees a design problem, he is always ready to find a better solution. Even while chatting with a journalist outside his office, he points out ceilings and windows in different spaces and describes how he would improve them.

For Burnell, a master’s student in mechanical engineering, thinking about design is a way of life; whether he is creating a novel windmill or improving engineering software, he enjoys using his skills to figure out innovative solutions to familiar problems.

Growing up off the grid

Burnell’s unconventional way of looking at the world can be traced back to his upbringing in Northern California. Burnell describes his childhood home in Mendocino County as “off the grid,” located in a remote area that had only dirt roads at the time.

“The town I grew up in actually is not even a town,” he says. “There’s no municipal service besides the fire department. There is one gas station, one grocery store across from the post office, a Presbyterian church, and a K-3 school.”

Burnell was homeschooled by his parents until high school, when he began attending a nearby public school started by people in his community. His high school was different than most: Conventional desks and chairs were replaced by couches, and students could wander in and out of the main classroom in the center of school at any point during the day. Burnell enjoyed his school’s unusual culture and appreciated its focus on intrinsic motivation.

Finding his place at MIT

Burnell, who also has a BS in mechanical engineering from MIT, didn’t expect to attend such a large university, but during a visit he was immediately attracted to the vibe of the dorms in East Campus, such as the one where he lived previously, which he describes as wacky and a little bit punk.

“It’s in this old bunker that has really thick walls,” he says. “Everyone just paints all over everything. It’s like an old industrial district, safe because no one wants to mess with it.”

Growing up, Burnell hadn’t given much thought to what went into designing the products he saw around him — a finished bicycle, cup, or piece of furniture. As an undergraduate at MIT, however, he began thinking about the entire process of making products, and all of the decisions that lead to designing products in a particular way. This is what motivated him to pursue mechanical engineering.

“It was coming here and seeing, oh, there are actually all these ways in which these things do get made by people, and hey, I can be one of those people,” says Burnell.

To read the rest of this article, published in MIT News, please click here.