Burleson offers her unique perspective on how double majoring in anthropology and mechanical engineering at OSU informs her research in design science and sustainable development.

Grace Burleson

Grace Burleson

By Gabriella Grinbergs, CLA Student Writer - March 13, 2024

“To me it felt like this venn diagram: One side is anthropology and one side is mechanical engineering, and I was trying to be in the middle,” Grace Burleson, ‘16, M.S. ‘18 , described.

“I was trying to figure out ‘what is this middle?’”

Burleson’s time at OSU guided her in answering this question. When earning her undergraduate degree, she participated in a research project the summer before her senior year in Uganda. Here she found a personal challenge in employing non-engineering skills, like interviewing, and returned to OSU wanting to learn more about new methods of research.

She took Anthropology of International Development (ANTH 482), taught by Bryan Tilt, in the last year of her undergraduate degree to better understand the importance of social context in different research regions and how this scenery changes design and testing processes.

“If you’re going to work in global health or sustainable development,” she advised, “you’re going to need to know the historical and cultural background of the context you are working in.”

Burleson then discovered the Humanitarian Engineering program at OSU – self-defined as “the co-development of science or engineering-based solutions to improve the human condition, namely through improved access to basic human needs.” She started her dual master’s degree in mechanical engineering and applied anthropology after graduating in 2016, co-advised by Nordica MacCarty and Kendra Sharp from mechanical engineering and Bryan Tilt from the School of Language, Culture, and Society.

At the start of this new academic chapter, Burleson continued taking anthropology classes alongside engineering to gain skills that would help her in understanding cultural factors that have not been historically considered in engineering research.

These included Uses of Anthropology (ANTH 585), taught by Associate Professor Andrew Gerkey, and Ethnographic Methods (ANTH 591), taught by Assistant Professor Shaozeng Zhang, which both proved to be “foundational” to Burleson’s learning experience.

Following graduation with her master’s degree in 2018, Burleson took a year off to complete independent research to further explore the question of what opportunities lie in the middle of her two areas of study. It was here she eventually found design science – “the study of how we design and what those outcomes of design are on people and society” – at the University of Michigan for her Ph.D.

One  goal of design science, according to Burleson, is to integrate societal context earlier and more often in engineering and design processes. She continued her research in humanitarian engineering, analyzing how  global health designers integrate social contexts into engineering design processes.

Her Ph.D. study focused on the design of products for global health settings, such as medical devices or information apps with the goal of improving one’s health, in low- and middle-income countries.

“I use theory and methodology from anthropology in my work now, day-to-day,” she commented.

Burleson’s research at Michigan, guided by Professor Kathleen Sienko and Professor Kentaro Toyama, was able to identify thirty-two classifications of contextual factors, or characteristics of a broader setting a product will be used in, including social, economic, environmental, and historical aspects. The team was able to give recommendations for how designers can not only recognize the influence of these factors, but also include them in design processes. This will make the resulting product more contextually suitable for the region it will be used in.

Now, Burleson is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Boulder in mechanical engineering, teaching design methodology to future engineers, with a particular focus in human centered design, and leading the Burleson Global Design Group.

“Engineering is not just ‘does this thing go really fast and make us a lot of money?’ It’s also ‘does the thing actually improve people’s lives and mitigate harm?’ or have some sort of positive outcome?,” she added.

Burleson encourages her students to consider the full impact of their decisions from every angle and deviate from a strictly objective approach when developing a new project.

While engineering as a whole is trending towards human centered design principles, with the addition of ethics courses and emphasis on sustainability, Burleson notes that mechanical engineering programs sometimes lack the time to offer an interdisciplinary approach in a standard four-year undergraduate degree.

“At Oregon State, it felt really easy to do interdisciplinary work and that might not necessarily be the case at a lot of schools,” she added.

She highly recommends adding a humanities perspective to close the gap between objectivity and varying user contexts – bringing both perspectives into a comfortable and exciting new middle.

Burleson conducting qualitative research in Uganda as an OSU undergraduate student. Photo credit: Matt Rogers

Burleson conducting qualitative research in Uganda as an OSU undergraduate student. Photo credit: Matt Rogers