What is
Whole-Brain Engineering?

At Northwestern Engineering, we do more than educate great engineers. We empower our students to become whole-brain engineers. This means integrating the elements of left-brain thinking — analysis, logic, synthesis, and math — with the kind of high-level right-brain thinking that fosters intuition, metaphorical thought, and creative problem solving. To lead effectively, you must master both.

Our whole-brain experience leverages connections throughout Northwestern University and neighboring institutions, bringing together undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. Augmenting the analytical core of engineering with design, entrepreneurship, leadership and personal development, and unusual collaborations, our students and faculty are prepared to take the world in a whole new direction.

The National Academy of Engineering recognized Dean Julio M. Ottino for the development of our school's whole-brain engineering philosophy with the 2017 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technical Education.

Left-brain analysis

Left-brain analysis

Engineering requires the non-negotiable left-brain skills in mathematics, analyis, and rational thinking. Beginning in the first year and continuing through the graduate level, our students are immersed in rigorous courses in topics such as computer programming, physics, engineering mechanics, and differential equations.

Right-brain creativity

Right-brain creativity

Right-brain thinking embraces creativity, intuition, and metaphorical thought. It means looking at a problem through a new lens. Looking beyond the perceived problem to determine the actual problem. Using divergent thinking to create disruptive innovations. To innovate and lead, engineers must learn to be whole-brain.

Our whole-brain network

We put our whole-brain philosophy to work not only in the classroom, but in our research, in collaborative initiatives on and beyond campus, and as we push our work into the world-at-large as the leaders and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Choose a strategic area to learn more about how we support it:

Analysis

Math, logic, analysis, scientific reasoning, rational thinking — the systematic way of thinking needed to become an engineering leader of tomorrow

Math, logic, analysis, scientific reasoning, rational thinking — these skills are non-negotiable for engineers. The field of engineering has been built on the importance of empirical evidence and data. Analytical thinking allows engineers to create a data-based view of a product or system and use a logical skill set to innovate, design, and improve it.

At Northwestern Engineering, analysis is non-negotiable. It drives our innovations and gives our faculty and students the systematic way of thinking needed to become the engineering leaders of tomorrow.

Education

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

We believe that between what's known and what hasn't been tried yet, there's untapped possibility. That's why we provide a powerful hands-on research experience for students to develop an advanced understanding of today's complex engineering and scientific challenges. Undergraduate research begins as early as the first year, with students collaborating alongside world-class faculty and graduate students. At any given time during the regular academic year, you’ll find about 150 engineering undergraduates actively engaged in on-campus research. In the summer, that number often swells to 225. Our faculty members are on the forefront of groundbreaking innovation, and our students are often part of teams that publish notable results.

Innovative Course: Engineering Analysis

Our innovative Engineering First curriculum introduces first-year students to the fundamentals of a rigorous engineering education alongside practical applications and experiences that emphasize the power of communication. The curriculum brings together two aspects of whole-brain engineering: Engineering Analysis and Design Thinking and Communication.

In Engineering Analysis, students engage with engineering concepts from the beginning of their first year, including linear algebra, engineering mechanics, physics, differential equations, and MATLAB programming. Each course integrates these topics with engineering applications, and MATLAB is used throughout the sequence to provide students with important tools to augment their professional development.

Synthetic biologists changed the shape and size of a common bacterial virus to better understand how these factors affect its ability to delivery drugs.
Reshaping the Virus:Synthetic biologists changed the shape and size of a common bacterial virus to better understand how these factors affect its ability to delivery drugs.
Engineers developed a soft, flexible device that adheres to the skin and analyzes the wearer’s sweat to understand how the body responds to exercise.
A Lab on the Skin:Engineers developed a soft, flexible device that adheres to the skin and analyzes the wearer’s sweat to understand how the body responds to exercise.
Data analysis shows that the best predictor of a movie’s significance is not positive reviews but how often it's referenced by other movies.
Can the Critics:Data analysis shows that the best predictor of a movie’s significance is not positive reviews but how often it's referenced by other movies.
Researchers analyzed a massive amount historical data to create the first-ever coral global index, which ranks coral species’ vulnerability to bleaching.
Saving Coral from ExtinctionResearchers analyzed a massive amount historical data to create the first-ever coral global index, which ranks coral species’ vulnerability to bleaching.
Professor Uri Wilensky's NetLogo, the world’s most used agent-based programming language and modeling environment, enables students to analyze how interactions unfold over time.
Simulating Systems:Professor Uri Wilensky's NetLogo, the world’s most used agent-based programming language and modeling environment, enables students to analyze how interactions unfold over time.

Research

Collaborative and cross-disciplinary

At Northwestern, analytical thinking is most apparent in the dozens of research labs that continually produce the innovations of tomorrow. We are making strategic investments in research areas that will drive our progress in the coming years. Our award-winning faculty, including several national academy members, work across disciplines to create new knowledge while maintaining a solid grounding in the fundamentals.

Design

The ability to see and solve the real problem behind the perceived problem

Design is an essential skill for whole-brain engineers. Our view of design is broad: it extends seamlessly from research and product design to systems design and the design of services, and it includes such areas as health care systems, financial products, and architecture.

Listen to Dean Ottino introduce design and whole-brain thinking to incoming studentsDesign thinking is a key pillar of right-brain thinking for engineers at Northwestern. Design thinking is the ability to see and solve the real problem behind the perceived problem. We teach our engineers to study the problem, frame the correct problem, ideate and prototype solutions, then meaningfully communicate the story and idea behind the solution.

We focus on human-centered design, taking a unified approach to problem solving that draws from the domains of engineering, social science, and psychology. Our collaborative research program brings together leading faculty and graduate students from across the University to advance design research. Our programs extend from project courses and certificates to degrees and graduate programs that focus on integrating design in all forms of human endeavor.

Design InnovationNorthwestern’s Segal Design Institute teaches students to use design innovation skills to uncover richer insights that lead to more meaningful products, services, and systems.

Design innovation empowers leaders to develop meaningful solutions, create new value, and envision new possibilities. At the highest level, design unlocks creativity and the ability to imagine a new future.

Julio M. Ottino, Dean, McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science

Segal Design Institute

Segal Design Institute educates the next generation of design thinkers and leaders — people who are able to move across domains and industries, identify convergences, and create impact through the lens of human-centered design. It provides a variety of immersive, interdisciplinary programs for undergraduates, graduate students, and working professionals that teach collaboration and leadership in design thinking.

Education

Innovative Course: Design Thinking and Communication

Our innovative Engineering First curriculum introduces first-year students to the fundamentals of a rigorous engineering education alongside practical applications and experiences that emphasize the power of communication.

The Wall Street Journal highlights Design Thinking and Communication courseIn Design Thinking and Communication (DTC), students work on solving real clients’ problems while strengthening communication skills so others can better understand and use the results. This two-course sequence puts students to work immediately, training them to distinguish the real issue behind a perceived problem. And as they gain proficiency in communicating, DTC students master design thinking, developing the problem-solving and presentation skills necessary to thrive in a competitive marketplace. DTC is extended beyond Northwestern Engineering to students throughout the University through the Design Thinking and Doing course. Students from a wide range of disciplines learn the key methods of design innovation and work in teams to apply those methods, explore ideas, and prototype solutions.

Design-thinking at all Levels

At both the graduate and undergraduate level, students work on projects that produce tangible results and improve the lives of people around the world. Segal’s team-based approach to education encourages students to use design thinking together to solve complex, authentic problems in product, interaction, service, and business design.

Research

Segal's research program advances our knowledge of design innovation and human-centered design as it:

  • brings together researchers, faculty, and students with diverse interests and backgrounds
  • provides resources from multiple schools at Northwestern University
  • drives towards greater understanding of specific concepts and topics in design

At the center of Segal’s research program is the PhD Design Cluster. This multi-school cluster brings together dynamic faculty from the Segal Research Faculty Council and PhD students from a variety of disciplines.

Student Groups

Design for America

Design for America, founded at Northwestern, is a national network of campus studios where students work in interdisciplinary teams with local community partners to design solutions for social good. Teams work throughout the school year on projects that last anywhere between eight weeks to a year. Studios are supported by professional experts who provide mentorship, faculty members who connect students to university-resources, and the DFA network which offers instruction and best practices. Students prepare for a future in the field of innovation, build life-long friendships, and help change their communities for the better.

Entrepreneurship

Innovation brought to life

In this time of rapid change, we are interested in how enduring concepts and values intersect with new ideas, leading us to constant progress and innovation at all levels.

Learn more about our entrepreneurship vision You can find entrepreneurship and innovation activities in nearly every corner of Northwestern, ranging from centers and institutes to student groups and administrative offices. Northwestern Engineering strives to maximize the benefits of entrepreneurship by offering resources and mentorship to motivated researchers and students, and by guiding and informing early interactions with potential licensors.

The creation of companies is a byproduct of what we do at Northwestern Engineering, not the central objective. Where there is a desire to start a company that allows our innovators to move their own ideas into practice, however, we encourage it. We follow best practices that lead to more successful startup companies—companies founded by inventors and skilled lab members instead of non-inventors who seek to commercialize the technology of others solely for financial gain.

In our NUvention courses, students work in interdisciplinary teams to learn the entire entrepreneurial life cycle by taking ideas and turning them into viable businesses.
Understanding Innovation:In our NUvention courses, students work in interdisciplinary teams to learn the entire entrepreneurial life cycle by taking ideas and turning them into viable businesses.
Student-founded IFM Technologies develops intelligent, high-performance drones, allowing their users to remotely inspect indoor construction sites.
Soaring Startup: Student-founded IFM Technologies develops intelligent, high-performance drones, allowing their users to remotely inspect indoor construction sites.
NUvention's energy, clean tech startup SiNode Systems developed a longer lasting, faster charging battery — an innovation that resulted in an invitation to ring NASDAQ’s closing bell.
Powering Possibilities:NUvention's energy, clean tech startup SiNode Systems developed a longer lasting, faster charging battery — an innovation that resulted in an invitation to ring NASDAQ’s closing bell.
 Design for America’s SwipeSense developed a patented device that lowers the risk of hospital-acquired infections by allowing health professionals to sanitize their hands with one, easy swipe.
Healthy Invention: Design for America’s SwipeSense developed a patented device that lowers the risk of hospital-acquired infections by allowing health professionals to sanitize their hands with one, easy swipe.
Born in Design for America, student startup Sproutel developed Jerry the Bear, an interactive teddy bear helps diabetic children build healthy behaviors through play.
Designing for Social Good: Born in Design for America, student startup Sproutel developed Jerry the Bear, an interactive teddy bear helps diabetic children build healthy behaviors through play.
Engineering Design and Innovation students helped Procter & Gamble develop TideSpin, an app-based laundry pick-up and delivery service that is now being piloted in Chicago.
Corporate Collaborations:Engineering Design and Innovation students helped Procter & Gamble develop TideSpin, an app-based laundry pick-up and delivery service that is now being piloted in Chicago.

Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

The Farley Center facilitates the next generation of interdisciplinary learning at Northwestern by integrating many different disciplines and bringing together faculty from a number of schools to develop courses where students experience the entire innovation/business lifecycle — from ideation to prototyping and business plan development.

Education

Innovative Courses: NUvention

NUvention is our flagship suite of interdisciplinary courses. Within NUvention courses, students work together in interdisciplinary teams to learn the entire innovation and entrepreneurial life cycle. Throughout the course, students design, plan, and launch businesses. It's Northwestern's most concerted effort to bring the world of startups to the classroom and brings together both undergraduate and graduate students in experiential entrepreneurship education.

  • NUvention: Advanced Materials: Offers student teams the opportunity to work with a Northwestern faculty member on commercializing a technology the faculty member believes has potential.
  • NUvention: Analytics: Designed to create opportunities for students to create new analytics technologies and then build businesses around their innovations.
  • NUvention: Arts: Facilitates the creation, innovation, and organization of new ideas and companies in the field of the creative arts. The goal is to help students understand that success in the arts is a function of passion, work ethic, talent, and entrepreneurial drive.
  • NUvention: Energy: Responds to the demand for innovation and entrepreneurship in the sustainable energy and clean tech space, which will increasingly be required to deal with climate change, resource constraint, and other environmental challenges.
  • NUvention: Medical: Creates opportunities for students to create new medical technologies and then build businesses around their innovations.
  • NUvention: Therapeutics: Focuses on how to leverage Lean Startup Principles in the therapeutics industry.
  • NUvention: Transportation: Designed to create opportunities for students to learn about and create businesses in the transportation space.
  • NUvention: Web + Media: Designed to expose students to the entire product and business development life cycle for a software company.

Successful Startups

When innovation does lead to a startup, our students become economic drivers in a thriving tech scene. Recent successes include:

  • Adaptly: Provides technology to help companies advertise across social media platforms
  • AMPY: Developed a portable battery that charges from kinetic energy
  • MeterGenius: Created a customer engagement solution for electricity providers
  • Sinode Systems: Develops advanced materials for the next generation of lithium-ion batteries
  • Sproutel: Employs empathy-driven design processes to develop products that help children live healthy lives
  • SwipeSense: Created an affordable, data-driven hand hygiene platform for reducing hospital-acquired infections
  • Syndio: Developed an analytics platform that shows how employees influence and lead within an organization
  • Ullo: Created a revolutionary wine purifier that keeps the natural taste of wine while filtering out sulfites

Leadership and Personal Development

If you want to be a leader, first be part of the team

Leadership is more than being the boss. It’s asking the right questions, working as part of the team, and creating a framework for success that inspires and mobilizes those around you.

At Northwestern Engineering, we provide students with the resources needed to prepare personally and professionally for the person they want to be, and we offer a unique assessment tool that helps students understand how their teamwork and leadership abilities can be improved.

Engineering Improv teaches skills such as focus and collaboration while encouraging students to explore available opportunities and engage in new experiences.
Allowing the Unexpected: Engineering Improv teaches skills such as focus and collaboration while encouraging students to explore available opportunities and engage in new experiences.
The Center for Leadership provides tools and coaching to help determine a student’s leadership strengths and weaknesses and explore ways for growth.
Building Leaders: The Center for Leadership provides tools and coaching to help determine a student’s leadership strengths and weaknesses and explore ways for growth.
Through a suite of classes, activities, and seminars, our Office of Personal Development helps students become lifelong learners and take ownership of their personal growth.
Empowering Students:Through a suite of classes, activities, and seminars, our Office of Personal Development helps students become lifelong learners and take ownership of their personal growth.
Emotional Intelligence 101 helps students master their attention in order to manage stress and improve focus, self-awareness, and empathy for others.
Cultivating Mindfulness:Emotional Intelligence 101 helps students master their attention in order to manage stress and improve focus, self-awareness, and empathy for others.

Center for Leadership

The Center for Leadership offers opportunities for all students to improve their skills in an environment that nurtures experimentation and innovation. Northwestern is one of only a few academic institutions that boasts a university-wide research center dedicated to the study of leadership and dissemination of the latest and best practices.

Office of Personal Development

Our Office of Personal Development empowers students to take ownership of their learning and personal growth. The office helps students develop the skills to be lifelong adaptive learners by fostering the five core competencies:

  • Awareness: Leveraging intellectual curiosity and the confidence to question as you create your personal, professional, and civic identity
  • Optimization: Identifying tensions among competing resources and desired outcomes, and applying resources to accomplish goals
  • Fidelity: Loyalty to a consistent level of quality and integrity based on internal motivations, rather than external demands or rewards
  • Resilience: Persevering in the face of challenging situations
  • Self-Reliance: Confidently applying knowledge of yourself and your abilities in the service of your values and goals

Education

Innovative Tools: The Leadership Portal

The Center for Leadership's Portal offers students the opportunity to learn about their leadership and teamwork through two innovative tools: the 360° Leadership Assessment and the Teamwork Assessment.

The 360° Assessment is an evaluation that collects insights from professors, classmates, and others to help determine a student’s leadership strengths and weaknesses. In a subsequent coaching session, participants meet with program leaders to discuss the findings and explore pathways for growth. Grounded in principles of “authentic leadership,” programs like these teach students to develop their individual leadership style based on their own talents, rather than emulate a maverick CEO who’s perceived as today’s great leader.

Built from best industry practices and our proprietary research, the Teamwork Assessment identifies typical teamwork problems at the individual and group levels, and provides a process for solving them.

Innovative Course: Engineering Improv

Engineering Improv: The Art of Allowing introduces Northwestern Engineering undergraduates to improvisational techniques, including developing sensory awareness, attention and focus, collaboration, trust and support, storytelling skills, and commitment to character. The course helps undergraduate students develop accurate self-awareness by creating an environment that encourages them to explore available opportunities and engage in new experiences.

Innovative Course: Emotional Intelligence 101

This course gives Northwestern students the tools they need to master their attention. By doing so, they manage stress and improve focus, self-awareness, and empathy for others. Based on the Bar-On Model of Emotional Intelligence, the course is divided into five topics: stress management, self-perception, self-expression, interpersonal relationships, and decision-making.

Collaboration

Working with partners across disciplines to tackle complex problems from multiple angles

Learn more about our global visionUltimately, we believe that curating a whole-brain network augments our thinking and unlocks new capabilities. This systems-thinking approach gives us a framework to connect with partners across disciplines. Northwestern is built for these connections; the majority of our science departments are clustered within a set of interconnected buildings, and Northwestern Engineering actively pursues formal collaborations with nearly every school at the University, both on the Chicago and Evanston campuses.

Our view of collaboration extends beyond our borders, with the Office of Global Initiatives supporting faculty and students in making deep connections with collaborators across the world.

Northwestern Engineering collaborates with partners that include the Art Institute of Chicago.
Northwestern Engineering collaborates with partners that include the Art Institute of Chicago.
Computer scientists work with the humanities to use machine learning and language modeling to fix errors in the transcriptions of early English texts.
Engineering a Literary Cleanup:Computer scientists work with the humanities to use machine learning and language modeling to fix errors in the transcriptions of early English texts.
In partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Professor Brenna Argall combines robotics with rehabilitation, designing assistive machines for motor-impaired patients.
Rehabilitative Robotics:In partnership with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Professor Brenna Argall combines robotics with rehabilitation, designing assistive machines for motor-impaired patients.
Northwestern Engineering and School of the Art Institute of Chicago students collaborate to turn large data sets into compelling works of art that highlight the data’s hidden insights.
Data as Art Course:Northwestern Engineering and School of the Art Institute of Chicago students collaborate to turn large data sets into compelling works of art that highlight the data’s hidden insights.
Professor Bryan Pardo combines his computer science expertise with his love for music to create simpler software for music production.
Interactive Audio Lab:Professor Bryan Pardo combines his computer science expertise with his love for music to create simpler software for music production.

Art

While the outcomes of art and science are fundamentally different, there are significant benefits to bringing more visual, more artistic thinking into science and engineering. The value in the intersection resides in enriching how the other side thinks. Both sides have a romantic view of the other. Scientists and engineers equate art with creation, beauty, and inspiration; artists equate science and engineering with cold methodical logic and rationality and, maybe a singular moment of inspiration when a great discovery is made.

But it is precisely in the similarities and opposites where interesting things happen. How can there by a constructive intersection between these spheres and their practitioners? There are at least two ways. One is the need to make things. This is most clear at the extremes of engineering and science. The other is creativity. At a high level of abstraction and production, the differences between artists, scientists, and engineers blur. They all rely on a singular need, craving or obsessiveness, and an ability to enjoy the process of creation for its own sake.

At Northwestern Engineering, we continue to collide these fields to explore their commonality and differences, with the hopes of educating students with new ways of thinking.

Innovative Courses: Data as Art

Led by faculty based at both the School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC) and Northwestern University, engineering and art students are put into groups to establish a critical dialogue about information visualization across multiple disciplines, and engage in collaborative research on information visualization using existing data sets.

Innovative Courses: Art Theory and Practice

  • Risk (ART 390, DSGN 395): This class brought together artists and engineers to do innovative work designed for impact. The theme was risk. Humans are exposed to countless dangers on a daily basis and many calls to action, yet we so often fail to act. How can invisible risk be made visible enough for people to take action? At the heart of this class is the hope that students will develop an ethical program as individual artists and designers.
  • Water (ART 390, DSGN 395): This course was a merger of two approaches: scientific and artistic. The goal of the class was for groups of engineering and art students to work together on collaborative projects that merge pragmatic and poetic approaches to water. Students engaged with the subject on a physical, aesthetic, metaphoris, political, and practical levels.

Partnerships

Events

  • Conversations at the Intersection: A speaker series that aimed to provide a broad audience with a glimpse of the creative process from across different fields. Speakers discuss several facets of creativity, including ways to overcome a creative block, the concept of a “lone genius,” and the underlying process of creative works.

Learn about our collaborative research networks

Humanities

By its very nature, engineering is creative and directed to human uses, but oftentimes creativity is an afterthought, or taught at the end of engineering studies. In the arts and humanities, creative and metaphorical thinking come into play early on. By bridging these two fields, we can educate students who can appreciate different ways of thinking and grasp opportunities to contribute something distinctive. Our faculty are already bridging these gaps through research.

Law

At Northwestern, engineering and law work together to educate lawyers and engineers to advance innovation. Northwestern Engineering has a close partnership with the Pritzker School of Law, putting on joint events and encouraging interdisciplinary research. 

Medicine

Northwestern Engineering has strong relationships with both the highly ranked Feinberg School of Medicine, the innovative Northwestern Medicine, and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is consistently named the top rehabilitation hospital in the country. Our researchers work to build autonomous wheelchairs, create implantable, stretchable medical devices, and build better models for distributing donated organs to save more lives.

Explore other strategic areas: