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

  • No description available

  • 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

  • Design Fundamentals: This is an introductory level design class focusing on understanding problem, 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 prototype 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

  • 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, willing and able to devote 6 - 10 hours a week outside of scheduled class time working on projects. Key Words: fabricate, design, mechanical, art, independent project

  • In this class we will learn about some of the practical and ordinary problems faced by individuals with physical disabilities. We will 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 be introduced to a range of materials and fabrication methods 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. We will examine societal attitudes about disability, learn about the fight for access and inclusion, and how design and assistive technology can counter barriers. Key Words: Problem Solving, Fabrication, Accessibility, Disability, Design

  • This course will look at the issues involved with design and fabrication in situations where there are limited resources. Students will engage in the hands-on study and design of technologies considered appropriate for less developed and small-scale local economies. 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.

  • 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 test assistive devices. We will examine societal attitudes about disability, learn about the fight for access and inclusion. Projects may be for children or adults with temporary injuries/conditions or ongoing physical disabilities. 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, project documentation, guest speakers, readings, film viewings and discussions. Students will identify and develop an independent assistive technology project for a particular person or community. (keywords: design, disability, drawing, modeling, justice)

  • Full Title: Environments and Change: Addressing Climate Change in a Changing Social, Political, and Environmental World Main Question: What are the ongoing and growing concerns associated with climate change and how can we take meaningful, positive action to address them? Course Description: The challenge of creating a just and sustainable future in the face of climate change is arguably the greatest challenge yet to face humankind. Why haven't we as individuals or governments or societies begun to act as if our very lives and cultures are threatened by climate change? Countries across the world were able to enact rapid and massive behavioral change when faced with COVID19, but have failed to do so when faced with climate change. What are the implications of environmental and climate change in relationship to privilege, accessibility, and race? How does one live a sustainable life in an ever-changing world? Join us to brainstorm potential solutions to current local and global environmental and related social problems. This seminar will be co-taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty and staff and will include guest lectures from experts across a breadth of areas related to climate change, environmental justice, and sustainability. The course will be divided into modules focused on specific problems and potential solutions, such as why humans are so resistant to changing our habits, and how massive societal change can be motivated; how we can learn to communicate around hard topics and differing beliefs; how ecopoetics and ecocriticism can engage not only climate justice but racial justice as well; how applied design can help us create accessible tools; and how other animals are responding to climate change and biodiversity loss. Modes of working will include brainstorming, hands-on design and fabrication work (#making), reading, researching, communication, dialogue, and restorative practices. Approaches: #sustainabledesign #environmentaljustice #creativewriting #biodiversityconservation