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Brand-new Design Tripos brings arts and science together in one degree to address global challenges

A brand-new Cambridge degree led by Michael Ramage, John Orr and Darshil Shah - the first undergraduate course ‘designed from scratch’ at the University for a number of years - will merge arts and science to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

For the first time, the Design Tripos brings together architecture, engineering and materials science in a single degree. Blending technical content with design freedom, the course will offer a different kind of creativity, and a new approach to tackling societal and environmental issues, including poverty and climate action.

Using practices of design and our understanding of how they influence people, economies and the natural world, the four-year Master of Design (MDes) degree will be structured around hands-on, problem-based learning projects. Studio work and practical skills, including drawing, writing, coding, and fabricating, will complement taught courses in the humanities, social and natural sciences, and mathematics - bringing historical, cultural, ecological and economic context.

“It’s pioneering – we’re merging the arts and sciences under the umbrella of creativity and design, and constructing the course to be as open and interesting as possible,” said Professor Michael Ramage, Director of Cambridge’s Centre for Natural Material Innovation, and Deputy Head of the University’s Department of Architecture. “We don’t know of any other single degree course that brings these three subjects together like this.”

Delivering clean growth and a circular economy requires not just specific technical expertise but a holistic understanding of the world, said Prof Ramage, who points at the COVID pandemic response as an illustration of how rapid solutions arise from the confluence of different fields.

“Pressing challenges – such as achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and reaching sustainable development for all - are likely to be addressed directly as design challenges, rather than as separate mathematical or engineering challenges,” he said. “They don’t fit into a neat academic box; unlocking creativity requires collaboration and knowledge across a variety of disciplines.”

The Design Tripos - which will start in October 2024, and lead to a Master of Design (MDes) upon successful completion - has been developed by the Department of Architecture in collaboration with the Departments of Engineering and Materials Science & Metallurgy, amid a growing desire among students in these fields to blend elements of each other’s subjects.

“We know there is general interest among students to apply their education to global grand challenges, and particularly sustainability challenges, which can be met through design,” said Prof Ramage. “But it’s very hard to study across disciplines - there’s no way you can create a degree like this simply by taking classes from those three different departments, which are all in three different Schools at the University. That’s why we’ve had to design the degree from scratch.”

The blended nature of the Design Tripos will appeal to a wide range of students, and aims to help address gender disparity in design fields. Over the past three years, fewer than 40 per cent of applications to Engineering and Physical Sciences at Cambridge have been from female students.

Professor Graham Virgo, Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education, said: “The Design Tripos will teach both the ‘know-how’ and the ‘know-what’ to help develop the next generation of pioneers and leaders in industry, public service and society. The course is aimed at students who are thinking about global problems and want to learn how they can do something to help. We also know that employers are increasingly looking for multidisciplinary knowledge and team-working skills, and so the Design Tripos also anticipates the hybrid jobs of the future.”

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