Pain Points

Identifying Problems, Uncovering Innovation

Are you interested in engaging your students with pain points? Read on for a curated set of cards that explores identifying problems, alleviating pain points, and different perspectives leading to innovation.

Pain Points

by Mike Rust, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Western New England University

I’m running late for class. 

This is not a new phenomenon. A couple of emails popped into my inbox right before I left my office, and I got distracted. It happens. 


Anyway, that’s not super important, except to say that it made me five minutes late for class. And counting. 

Oh, and it's not even my class that I’m late for. I am covering for a colleague who is out today, so it’s his students who are waiting for me. 

Hopefully. They might be gone by the time I get there.


7 minutes late. Better pick up the pace. 

I make it to the classroom. Almost dropped my coffee while negotiating the combo of door handle, notes, and computer. Almost.

I walk in, and take stock of the situation. 

Strange. It looks like all the students are still here. Quick head count; yep, 22 accounted for. 

Stranger still: They appear to have started class without me.

students_studying.jpgI set down my gear and walk around the room to take a closer look. The students are working in groups, maybe 3-4 in each. Laptops are sprinkled throughout the room, and prototypes in various state of construction are everywhere. A buzz of chatter floats about the tables. 


The professor is late for class (substitute instructor, no less), yet the students not only stayed, but are working away unprompted. 

Something is different here. This would not have happened when I was a student, for sure.  

What's going on?

This scenario is playing out right now across the country in engineering classrooms. Well, hopefully not the being late part (again, it happens). No, the part where students are thinking that class is less about learning X, and more about doing Y. 

And more to the point, where students are demonstrating a combination of skillsets and mindset that unleashes their potential for being change agents in our modern world. 

The key to this change? There are a lot of factors, obviously. But a big one, in my opinion, is giving students the chance to address a pain point

When engineering students are presented with pain points, like my colleague has done in his class, they immediately kick into action. They start thinking of solutions. They build things. They collect data. They fail…and start building again.

In short, they start engineering.

Giving students pain points to address with their skills really seems to work. And it doesn’t matter much if the pain point is big (renewable energy) or small (user interface could use a touch-up). Students seem to really engage with this approach.

Try These Activities & Projects

Are you interested in engaging your students with pain points? We’ve curated this set of cards that use this approach across a variety of engineering courses and topics. Feel free to use these ideas directly, or put your own take on them to incorporate them in your own courses.

Customer Pain Point Discovery

Customer Pain Point Discovery and Online Product Redesign Project

This project is part of a senior level, electrical engineering course called System Design at Ohio Northern University. Teams of 3-4 students work together to discover customer pain points of an online product using customer reviews with the aim to improve the product. The project involves a design-build-test culminating in a working prototype of the electronic improvements of the product.
Identifying Pain Points for Smart Sustainable Infrastructure through Image Association

Identifying Pain Points for Smart Sustainable Infrastructure through Image Association

This activity provides an opportunity to explore different perspectives to innovation in the smart and sustainable infrastructure space via multiple iterations of image association and searching to identify problems, pain points and opportunities.
Perceiving the World Through Technology

Perceiving the World Through Technology - A Project for First-Year Engineering Students

This activity will provide the student with the experience of developing an engineering-based solution, which includes not only the creation of prototypes and the integration of hardware and software, but learning about the impact that technology and the human-computer interaction could have in the ultimate experience of an vision-impaired individual and other involved stake-holders (educators, family, health services providers) in a world that has not been adjusted for visual-impaired individuals. The deliverable is a prototype of a wearable noninvasive, fashionable, and portable product/device focused on alleviating pain points in the daily activities of a vision-impaired person.
The Empathy Map

End User Feedback - The Empathy Map

This activity encourages students to find a close contact in their world who would benefit from assistive technology. Grandparents, a parent with a physical condition or someone that they know living with a disability make good clients. The idea is that the student feels close enough to reach out personally for an interview and have in-depth discussions about that person's particular needs and desires for a device that would assist them with activities of daily living.

About the Author

Mike Rust

Mike Rust, Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Western New England University

Mike looks to address complex challenges facing our world today and in the future. Things like global health and lab-on-a-chip get him REALLY excited! He gets to help train and work alongside the next generation of problem solvers as they embark on their emerging careers.

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