New Kind of Collaboration
By Alyssa Schoeneman, AEL Intern
From her past work as a park ranger for the National Park Service to her current work as an associate professor of Gender and Women’s Studies (GWS) and History, AEL Faculty Fellow Sharra Vostral has a strong tradition of innovative thinking.
"As a park ranger I gave a lot of tours and visited a lot of historical sites,” she explained. “People always had questions about family life and raising kids. That got me thinking about everyday life and what women did to take care of their menstrual periods.”
Vostral has since dedicated her research to study the history of menstrual hygiene and emphasizes gender equity in product design; she and Industrial Design Professor and AEL Faculty Fellow Deana McDonagh co-taught a course called Feminist Inventor’s Studio in Spring 2009.
“The idea was to bring together design and gender analysis to create more thoughtful products using gender and women’s needs as categories to evaluate the final design or product,” Vostral said.
The course was listed under both the Art + Design and GWS curricula, a first in Illinois history. Student enrollment was about 2/3 Industrial Design majors and 1/3 GWS majors, though the gender population was split pretty evenly.
“There were a range of comfort levels among the students in discussing gendered product design, but it yielded a wide range of products,” Vostral said. “It wasn’t all about body parts. For example, some people did a project on creating safe bike racks so people wouldn’t feel vulnerable to assault in the evening hours.”
Vostral enjoyed seeing the students collaborate and learn from one another; they created final products that she could have never imagined prior to the course.
“It was great to watch the designers with their great drawing skills and conceptual skills, and then to watch the GWS students pushing the assumptions about gender that were built into the products,” Vostral said. “It was invigorating to watch the students take the challenge and run with it because it was nothing they had ever been asked to do before.”
As inspired by design courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York where Vostral formerly taught, the goal of the course was twofold; Vostral aimed to bring a stronger critical approach to gender to the Industrial Design students and also to bring more of a material element to the GWS students.
“Most students felt that the course exposed them to a whole way of seeing objects and thinking about objects that they had never given much attention to before,” Vostral said.
While she considers the favorable student responses to be one level of success, Vostral said that she and McDonagh had success on another level, too.
“Deana and I had an article accepted and published by Design Principles and Practices: An International Journal after our course,” she said. “The article details our class and some of the strengths and weaknesses – it gives a broader scope of our lessons learned and of our future goals in the course.”
In its next incarnation, for example, the course will be taught at a 200 level rather than at a 400 level.
Overall, Vostral said, the class was a great learning experience but it was not without its challenges.
“Deana and I were coming from two very different worlds and we were trying to find a language between the professors and the students that made sense to everyone,” Vostral said. “I think the language and critical skills that both sets of students had were well developed for their respective majors but making the bridge between the two skill sets was difficult...That was something that constantly demanded our attention.”
Vostral credits the AEL as being the major catalyst in the development and execution of her course.
“The AEL was a good platform for me to move from because the class was, at its roots, an experiment,” she said. “It was good to learn what is sustainable at the University and what I need to tweak to make the class more attractive to students in the future."
Vostral added that she probably would not have experimented with her course had she not had the Academy’s support, and that having institutional backing gives heft to doing cross-disciplinary work.
To those aspiring to entrepreneurship in GWS, Vostral offers the following advice: figure out what people are doing so that you can determine how to be different; know your field, product or niche; isolate the problem in order to figure out how to solve it differently or better, or how to provide something else.
And to Illinois or Parkland faculty interested in the AEL, she said, “Apply for the fellowship.”
Short and sweet – now there’s a language everyone can understand.
Entrepreneurial courses taught by Professor Vostral
Inventor’s Studio: Designing for the Sexes (in collaboration with Professor Deana McDonagh)
It is clear that environmentalism has had great success in pressing for sustainable design, and most architecture programs have now embedded these tenets so that they are an unquestioned assumption in the design process. However, this is not the case for gender. Products that creatively and insightfully take gender into account can catalyze societal change, and be inspired by entrepreneurial approaches. By addressing how men and women use objects differently, new entrepreneurial avenues can open in design innovations. This course will revolve around designing and re-designing everyday objects to better serve women’s needs. Students will be required to include gender as a design element, and their success in doing so will be assessed and reflected in their project grades. The course will utilize the resources of the Fab Lab. Not only will students create and design a technology, they will be able to fabricate it to create a prototype. The prototype can then be the basis for a marketable product, patent, or business plan.
Visit Course Catalog website for course availability
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About Professor Vostral
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