Design for America
Design for America
McCormick School of Engineering & Segal Design Institute, Northwestern University
Design for America
Design for America is a nation-wide initiative that supports a network of student-run design studios based in college campuses throughout the US. These initiatives provide a framework for students from all majors to gain the experience, skills and confidence necessary to lead and innovate local and social impact design projects.
DESIGN FOR AMERICA Elizabeth Gerber: Advisor, DFA Faculty Founder, Assistant Professor Sami Nerenberg: Director of Operations Mert Iseri: DFA Post-Baccalaureate Fellow, DFA Student Co-Founder Yuri Malina: DFA Post-Baccalaureate Fellow. DFA Student Co-Founder Hannah Chung: DFA-Student Advisor, DFA Student Co-Founder Aaron Horowitz: DFA-Student Advisor Jeanne Olson: Advisor, Adjunct Professor Bruce Ankenman: Advisor, Associate Professor, Segal Design Institute’s Director of Undergraduate Studies Julio Ottino: Advisor, Dean of McCormick School of Engineering Paul Gudonis: Advisor, President Emerti of non-profit FIRST McCormick School of Engineering, Northwestern University: Sponsor
Design for America is notable as a well-thought out program that engages interdisciplinary college youth to bring their ideas into impactful outcomes outside of academic time frames. The ambition of the name indicates the scale of impact for this model once it has spread beyond its Northwestern University incubator.
Design for America
1. Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the challenge posed to you? Did it get you excited and why?
Traditional higher education coursework focuses on developing domain expertise, preparing students with the skills needed to earn a living, but not to innovate the world around them and tackle evolving ill-structured problems such as education, healthcare, environmental sustainability and beyond.
Innovation-thinking skills and confidence are most effectively developed through regular enactive mastery experiences where students witness the results of their work. Increasingly, higher education coursework attempts to offer such experiences but are faced with three primary constraints:
1) During the academic calendar, projects end when the quarter or semester ends, therefore the full learning is not always realized as concepts rarely get beyond initial idea generation or preliminary user-testing.
2) The few collegiate extracurricular initiatives that do aim to build future innovators focusing on humanitarian design and engineering, typically work in developing countries abroad, costing thousands of dollars in travel expenses and limiting access to the users for research, testing and co-developing solutions.
3) Many programs engaged in design for social impact lack access to the viewpoint of a broad spectrum of interdisciplinary teams, therefore often fail to produce holistic results.
DFA is excited to bridge the gap between local community needs, students’ fervent desire to make meaning through their work and develop leaders of innovation.
2. What point of view did you bring to the challenge? Was there anything additional that you wanted to achieve with this project or bring to this project that was not part of the original brief?
DFA is designed and developed by a network of faculty, students, staff, university administration, and advisors. While each participant brings a unique view to Design for America, DFA is built on the beliefs that:
1) Design has the potential to uncover innovative solutions to our communities most pressing needs. By taking a human-centered approach through iterative and reflective ideation and user-testing, we can deliver new insights and new innovations to the complex problems of our society.
2) Students driven by intrinsic motivation are more likely to succeed and become confident in their ability to innovate. This confidence then becomes a key component to a student’s ability to move projects into implementation and actualize social impact.
3) Whole-brain thinking and working in interdisciplinary teams is an essential part to developing sustainable solutions. DFA engages students from over 20 different majors including psychology, biology, anthropology and beyond to work towards holistic and innovative solutions for local and social challenges.
4) The collective is smarter than the individual. DFA relies on its network to explore and innovate solutions. Students learn from a network of professional mentors, faculty advisors, and most importantly from each other through an apprentice-based team-learning model.
3. When designing this project, whose interests did you consider? (Discuss various stakeholders, audiences, retailing, manufacturing, assembly, distribution, etc., for example.)
The design of DFA has been a participatory effort, involving faculty and advisors, as well as students, university staff, not-for-profit clients, and community professionals. At all stages of its development, DFA has sought out the opinions of each one of its stakeholders to better understand how to meet needs and wants.
Below is a list of the benefits we aim to provide and the needs we aim to satisfy by working with our various stakeholders.
Students: create social impact, learn design-thinking, work collaboratively and in interdisciplinary teams, develop portfolio and real world experience, networking with design professionals, and leadership development
Community Partners: gain new perspective of organization, mission-aligned design projects, co-written grant opportunities, improved client services, networks with community professionals and students, design methodology, and university affiliation
Faculty: work with excited students, test new teaching and design methodologies, inter-university collaboration, research, establish and maintain community relationships with design experts/community partners, thought leadership
Design Professionals: socially-driven application of expertise leading to personal satisfaction, create social impact, train new designers, visibility, continued learning, networking with students, design peers, and university faculty.
Universities: Innovative educational initiative, excited students, interdisciplinary collaboration, experiential learning opportunities, applied student learning, highlighted student talents
4. Describe the rigor that informed your design. (Research, ethnography, subject matter experts, materials exploration, technology, iteration, testing, etc., as applicable.) If this was a strictly research or strategy project, please provide more detail here.
The principles of DFA’s learning approach are based upon a new student-directed approach to education called Extracurricular Design-Based Learning (EDBL) (Gerber, Olson, & Komarek, 2011). The EDBL model provides opportunities for students to develop the non-technical skills critical to examining and prototyping solutions to ambiguous and complex problems from a design perspective, and engages students early in their academic experience within a community of professional practice that extends beyond university boundaries to inspire careers in innovation.
Theoretically, EDBL blends perspectives from many learning models, including project-based learning, adaptive learning, and design-based learning. Like these models, EDBL leverages the student-centered elements of student interest and self-direction; however EDBL depends upon knowledge being co-created by the students, peer mentors, and facilitators who are applying learning in a specific service learning context and applying this learning to complex social problems in uncertain organizational systems.
Since the original conception of the organization in 2008, DFA student founders, faculty advisors, administration, and community partners have followed a participatory design approach to refine DFA. Through one-on-one conversations, weekly check-ins, evaluations, and reflective workshops, DFA continues to include its various stakeholders on the refinement of its services. Through rigorous evaluation of learning outcomes it is found that participation in DFA positively influences students’ beliefs in their ability to use design to innovate (Gerber, Olson, Komarek, 2011). DFA’s services continually adapt to meet the needs of their users and encourage input from each participating member to offer insight for improvements to exemplify the learning model that we advocate.
5. What is the social value of your design? (Gladdening, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, labor-mindful, environmental, cultural, etc.) How does it earn its keep in the world?
in extracurricular based School Year Studios, Summer Studios and Post Baccalaureate Fellowships. In addition to the potential social impact of student-designed solutions, DFA is building a pipeline of future innovators who will enter the world not only with their personal academic concentrations, but with real project experience and a keen ability for interdisciplinary human-centered design work.
In just over two years, the inaugural studio at Northwestern has produced design solutions with local and social impact including a toy for diabetes, a system to reduce water usage in cafeterias, and a coloring book to help children adapt to difficult environments. These projects have received a variety of validations such as Semi-Finalist in the Dell Social Innovation Competition, Entrepreneurship Idol competition at Northwestern, the Diabetes Mine $5k Challenge, a pending patent and manufacturing preparations, and distribution through non-profit partnership. As a result, those participating in DFA have expressed:
“I’m no longer satisfied with the status quo. DFA makes you aware that you have the potential to change things” -Sara Kashani, PSYCH ’12
“We hired her, not because of the classes she took at a top university, but because of her involvement with DFA.”-Trung Le, Principal, Cannon Architects. DFA Alum employer
"Students want to make a real impact and Design for America provides a great venue for learning how to turn their ideas into action,"- Professor Peter Robbie, Dartmouth College
6. If you could have done one thing differently with the project, what would you have changed?
There are two things that we could have been doing differently from the start and which we are working to integrate into our organizational model.
1) Bringing more of our not-for-profit clients into discussions about how DFA could be better designed to serve their needs and 2) formalizing the necessary principles of reflection and knowledge sharing that would allow for more impactful self-development as well as cross-chapter organizational learning.
As a smaller organization, it has been easier to collaborate with and adapt to meet the individual needs of our not-for-profit clients, and now—two years from our beginning—we can see that there are themes and commonalities to the needs of not-for-profit clients that intersect neatly with what an organization like DFA can promise to deliver. Also, as a new organization, we need to think critically about how to incorporate the development of meta-cognitive skills and time necessary for reflective practice and the support for distributed knowledge sharing for all DFA stakeholders. This will be critical to student self-development as well as the maintenance of social relationships that are necessary to creating and maintaining the sense of reciprocity, respect for creation of mutual value, and foundation for collective inquiry critical to the healthy sustainable growth of a community of design learning practice. We can continue to learn from students, mentors, and partners on how we can use design to create local and social impact while developing a pipeline of leaders of innovation.