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Social Impact Through Design

Grassroots student-led design organization goes national at seven other sites

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October 26, 2011 | by Megan Fellman
Seventeen students from across the country representing seven new Design for America (DFA) studios came to Northwestern in August for leadership training and to learn DFA’s values and processes. Photo by Sally Ryan

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Design for America (DFA), the Northwestern University student-led program that creates local and social impact through interdisciplinary design, has gone national, spreading to involve nine other schools and universities this fall.

Since the grassroots initiative began at Northwestern in 2009, the University’s projects have included Jerry the Bear with Diabetes, an animatronic bear that educates children about the disease; hygiene solutions for a local hospital; and dishwashing solutions to save water in cafeterias.

In August, 17 students from institutions across the country came to Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science for DFA leadership training. They learned about Northwestern’s successes and were indoctrinated into Design for America’s values and processes so the students can help solve social problems in their own communities.

The organization’s growth has gotten some national attention: A group of DFA students were featured on the cover of the October issue of Fast Company magazine as part of its “United States of Design” cover story and also in an online Forbes story.

The seven new studios are just the start of a national network where students learn design through service. DFA organizers hope to spread the organization to a total of 50 universities during the next five years and make the weekend Leadership Studio an annual event.

“I was really inspired by the concept of design as imagining the future and then working systematically towards that future,” said Annie Wu, a student at RISD who participated in the Leadership Studio, “and how it’s tied to leadership and how important it is to live and work and design with purpose.”

The new schools in the DFA fold are Brown, Cornell, Columbia and Stanford universities, Barnard and Dartmouth colleges, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Oregon, Eugene. RISD and Brown share a design studio as do Barnard and Columbia.

“We’re an organization led by student designers, and everything is an experiment to see what works,” said Elizabeth Gerber, one of DFA’s founders and an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at McCormick. “The program does not involve a class so grades are not a factor. This allows students to take the risks needed for innovation.”

The DFA model emphasizes peer-to-peer learning. After a student has worked on a project he or she becomes a coach for new students.

“A local project can scale up and have impact far beyond the local community,” Gerber said.

The Northwestern studio focuses on projects in the areas of health, environment and education. Gerber first piloted the studio with Northwestern students Mert Iseri, Hannah Chung, Yuri Malina and others, working on Jerry the Bear. Since then, DFA has held several projects each year at Northwestern aimed at getting students involved in community projects.

“If it wasn’t for Jerry the Bear, I never would have found my love for mechatronics,” said Aaron Horowitz, a McCormick senior, who changed his major from mechanical engineering to mechatronics and user interaction design. (The major was specially designed by Horowitz to accommodate his work with Jerry the Bear.)

About 50 Northwestern students are actively involved in DFA; they represent about 20 different majors. About 430 students outside Northwestern have participated in DFA workshops with about 120 core members working on projects at the seven new studios.

Interested students and community members or organizations can contact Design for America at info@designforamerica.com.