Students, faculty piloting Design for America program

Christina Salter

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Courtesy of Mert Iseri

During a meeting with McCormick Dean Julio Ottino in fall 2008, newly-hired mechanical engineering Prof. Elizabeth Gerber casually mentioned her idea to create a program called Design for America.

The same day, she returned to her office and created a prototype Web site and fake newspaper article for her concept, which would allow students to enhance their understanding of design while working on projects in their local communities.

Less than one year later, students have completed their first project through Design for America. The group is gearing up for a summer program and Gerber is working with other faculty members to expand the organization nationally.

“It’s a great idea for a way for undergrads to not only learn design but also use it to do something worthwhile,” said McCormick Prof. Bruce Ankenman, who has participated in the organization’s planning process.

According to DfA design strategist Katy Mess, soon after Gerber came up with the name, the two started to “co-create what that might mean.” Mess, who graduated from SESP’s Learning and Organizational Change master’s program in December, was hired in April as a consultant for the Segal Design Institute and McCormick to work full-time on the project, she said.

Gerber said her inspiration for the program came from many sources, including the success of Teach For America and the increased spirit of civic engagement after the 2008 election season. Because she teaches user-centered design, which promotes gathering insights through personal observations, she said she welcomed the chance to apply the concept to local community projects.

After initial information sessions, about 10 students started meeting weekly to brainstorm ideas.

When Mert Iseri first heard about the group, the “hairs on (his) arm stood up,” the McCormick sophomore said.

“The more involved you get, you sort of find a flare of passion inside you and start popping out ideas and building on others’ideas,” he said.

Group members completed their first official project in April, an entry for the DiabetesMine design competition, which called for ideas to improve life for those with diabetes.

The students entered “Jerry the Bear with Diabetes,” an interactive stuffed bear with diabetes to help children understand their disease. The idea won a $5,000 prize for most creative entry, which the students plan to use for DfA seed money.

DfA now has a core group of about 30 students, mostly from McCormick and Weinberg, but members said they are looking to draw in more students from different schools and from the graduate level.

The group is currently accepting student applications for a summer fellows program, which will create small teams to work on several projects, including increasing hand washing at the Evanston Hospital and improving student participation in a program for underprivileged youth.

Gerber said she is also working with Mess, Ankenman and McCormick Prof. Michael Peshkin on building the program, spreading it to other universities and possibly creating a post-graduate program more similar to Teach For America, she said. Gerber said she also wants to involve the Chicago design community and potential clients.

DfA member Yuri Malina said the program “has potential to take hold on any other campus.”

“It’s a way that you can use your time and skills to actually help people,” the Weinberg freshman said. “(Before) I felt like I didn’t have anything that I was giving back to NU and Evanston.”

The response for the program has been overwhelmingly positive, Gerber said.

“I would write e-mails explaining my idea out of the blue … and people would be like, ‘Love it, great, let’s talk about it,'” she said. “People want to hear about it, and I find that by talking about it we’re able to build it.”