Donna Cohn

Associate Professor of Applied Design
Donna Cohn
Contact Donna

Mail Code LM
Donna Cohn
Lemelson Building 106

Donna Cohn, associate professor of applied design, holds a B.S. from the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University, and a master's in industrial design from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has worked with the Boston Center for Independent Living as a designer and builder of devices for people with physical disabilities. Her design process emphasized collaboration with the end user and the use of low-cost tools and materials. This way of working continues to inform her current design practice and teaching.

A member of the Hampshire faculty since 2002, her courses emphasize consideration of practical problems that directly impact communities, paired with hands-on iterative design. Her professional work, personal life, and teaching are deeply intertwined. She builds curriculum around design challenges on the Hampshire College campus as well as local community groups. She works with Hampshire Youth Connect, planning and effecting programming to introduce underserved youth to the college experience. 

In 2013, she received a Grand Challenges Explorations grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to develop and field test prototypes of a low-cost pearl millet thresher for use in sub-Saharan Africa. This project evolved out of discussions with a former student then working in Namibia. Cohn brought the project to the 2008 International Design for Development Summit (IDDS) held at M.I.T. and has continued design work over numerous semesters of her Appropriate Technology classes. Documentation of the thresher can be viewed at   

Her other interests include rearranging and putting things into and onto soil, ecologically sustainable technologies, dogs, cats, and other animals.

Recent and Upcoming Courses

  • We will learn how to build stuff that moves! Using wire, sheet metal, paper, wood, and a range of other media, we will examine and build mechanisms. We will contemplate the basic ingredients of mechanical forces and motion such as bearings, cams, cranks, gear ratios and more. Each student will develop an independent project that incorporates some type of physical motion. All levels of experience are welcome, but students should be comfortable using hand tools, able to devote 6 - 10 hours a week outside of scheduled class time working on projects. KEYWORDS:fabricate, design, mechanical, art, independent project

  • Look Ma, No Hands: An introductory design class focused on assistive technology: We will learn about some of the practical and ordinary problems faced by individuals who do not have full use of their hands or arms, then design, fabricate and collaboratively design assistive devices. Projects may be for children, or adults with temporary injuries/conditions or ongoing physical disabilities. We will also examine the concept of "Universal Design" - designing in a way that gracefully accommodates the range of human experience. Students in this class will develop problem solving, visual communication skills and a wide range of fabrication skills. There will be opportunities to work with the full range of materials and tools available in the Center for Design shop - such as metals, plastics and basic electronics. The curriculum will include weekly design assignments, guest speakers, readings, film viewings, discussions about the design process itself, as well as a major project.

  • Design Fundamentals: This is an introductory level design class focusing on understanding problems, generating ideas and developing practical elegant solutions. We will begin with a series of guided activities and projects, with the course culminating in a final independent project. Students will become familiar with a range of basic design tools and skills, such as drawing, computer aided design, model making, and prototyping in materials such as cardboard, metal and plastic. Throughout the course students will work toward improving visual communication skills and the ability to convey ideas. Keywords:Design,fabrication,Center for Design

  • Appropriate Technology in the World: This course will look at the issues involved with design and fabrication in low-resource situations. Students will engage in the hands-on study and design of technologies considered appropriate for less developed and small-scale local economies - parts of the world that are the first to feel the effects of climate change. What can we learn and apply from designing with a minimum impact attitude? Topics will include water quality, human powered cargo transportation, energy production, food storage and preparation, and wheelchair technologies. We will consider factors that make for successful adoption and widespread use of appropriate technologies. This semester we will partner with Pauline Dongala and the Old Stone Mill in North Adams, MA. Students will have the opportunity to learn about what is needed in Pauline's home village of Bikie in the Republic of Congo, to customize upcycled bicycles for multipurpose use, making them strong enough to carry multiple riders or large loads of material. Keywords:Design,fabrication,Center for Design

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  • A cranky is a storytelling device consisting of a box with two spindles and a hand-cranked illustrated scroll and accompanied by instrumental music, song or spoken word. Crankies arrived in the southern Appalachians with British immigrants beginning in the 1800s and served as entertainment as well as a means to record local, historical events. In this course, we will build crankies and create stories from folk ballads, original music, and songs that deal with contemporary issues. We will work independently and collaboratively as we experiment with image making, mechanical motion, simple lighting, shadows, music, and song. We will read and complete writing assignments about the role of crankies in folk culture, both historically and in contemporary practice. The class will conclude with an end-of-the-semester performance. It is open to students interested in making images and illustration, folk arts, and theater. Introverts and extroverts welcome! Keywords: Design, fabrication, American studies, folk arts, music