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Design for America: A Network of Students and Designers Solving Real-World Challenges

Design for America pulls together teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors to work on solving community challenges.



Every man must decide whether he will walk in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment. Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others? - Martin Luther King, Jr. \n

When I was an engineering student, many of my professors assigned me to a team and asked us to solve invented problems, like how to propel a ball across a room using only cardboard and rubber bands or how to build the tallest structure out of toothpicks and marshmallows. Other professors asked us to design specific things, such as laparoscopic suturing devices or fetal monitoring devices. But my favorite professors allowed me to choose my team and encouraged us to find our own problems to work on. Those assignments were the ones that made me feel I was helping others most. As a design engineer, I wanted meaning—and I wanted to choose my team.
That was one source of inspiration for Design for America, or DFA. Here’s another. In the fall of 2008, I had just started my job as a Northwestern University engineering design professor. From the heart of the Midwest, I watched the Obama campaign with awe. Friends who had never been politically active were volunteering for the campaign, going door to door, handing out fliers, writing blogs, and hosting dinners to talk about politics. Each found what was most meaningful to them and carried it out in their own way. I was inspired by the fact that the Obama campaign activated people to ask: what can I do for others?
I wondered how I could use that spirit to help empower students. What kind of community could I create to help students think that they were capable of helping others? What kind of process could I teach that helped students to think that they could collaboratively tackle the messiest and more daunting problems such as our obesity epidemic, failing schools, and polluted waters? As a professor, my job is to teach students how to reliably and creatively come up with answers to engineering design problems. Could I create an organization or environment that, like the Obama campaign, would inspire students to carry out their mission—as they envisioned it—in their own creative ways?
Here’s what I created: Design for America pulls together teams of volunteer faculty, students, and professional mentors in a local community. Interdisciplinary student teams meet weekly. Anyone who wants to be part of a design team can be. The only requirement is that participants must work, not just talk about the enormity of the problems. DFA doesn’t give students problems to solve; it guides them to walk around their community to find problems they believe are meaningful.
For instance, while in the hospital recovering from a collapsed lung, Yuri, a physics major, learned about hospital-acquired infections—and was disappointed to learn that people could actually die as a result. The hospital was making patients more sick—and the rate of infection would go down if nurses and doctors reliably washed their hands. Why weren’t they doing it? After days (and nights) of hanging out in the hospital observing, Yuri and his teammates, Casey, Hannah, and Mert, realized that it was not that doctors didn’t want to wash their hands; it was just that it was not always convenient to go to the hand sanitizer stationed by the door. They needed a way to sanitize their hands that was as instinctive as wiping their hands on their pants, the way a kid would to get sand off his hands at the beach.
Like all DFA teams, Yuri and his team followed DFA’s guided curriculum, which walked them through such design steps as understanding users, generating ideas, and rapidly building and iterating solutions. They met regularly with Jeanne Olson, a professional organizational designer based in Chicago, who volunteered her time to help the team, invited them to brainstorm ideas at her dining room table, and sent them all of the books and articles she could find on the topic. The team also reached out for help from medical and engineering professors at Northwestern who were familiar with manufacturing, hospital-acquired illnesses, and behavioral psychology. This past year, they raised a million dollars from investors and are doing clinical trials in hospitals.
Here’s the amazing thing: DFA student volunteers don’t get college credit, just as the teachers and mentors receive no pay. What they get is a sense of satisfaction, meaning, and power. Student teams meet weekly or monthly with professional mentors from the local community, who include professional design engineers, architects, graphic designers, entrepreneurs, doctors, hospital administrators, biologists, and city planners. The teams have solved problems in ways that are daring, feasible, and scalable to communities throughout the country. Design for America provides training and mentoring in innovation and fosters the exchange of resources between students, mentors, and community partners—all the elements that underlie innovation but are often absent from higher education.
A DFA studio is a group of 10-40 students at a university who commit to identifying and solving a range of problems in their local communities. Today, we have studios hosted at 14 colleges and universities throughout the country and an active network of 2000 students, alumni, faculty, and professional mentors. DFA has trained and mobilized thousands of students to spend hundreds of thousands of hours volunteering to work on challenges they believe are important. Some students are passionate about the environment and reducing water waste in Tennessee, while others are excited about improving the local literacy rate in New York.
Because students, faculty, and mentors represent 40 different disciplines from engineering and art to psychology and business, students have a unique opportunity to work with others beyond their own disciplines. They get to see how their friends with different academic backgrounds—in economics, say, rather than biology or politics—approach the same problems. And because they get to cross-fertilize their ideas with knowledge and approaches from beyond their disciplines, the answers are much more creative.
DFA students are often actively recruited as staffers by the organizations with whom they work. The local organizations are excited to hire students who are passionate about working on real problems and willing to pull their sleeves up when problems become messy.
Design for America also uses technology to deliver online training and mentoring for studios throughout the country. By drawing on existing (and often untapped) resources on campus, in the local community, and technology, Design for America has trained and mobilized thousands of students, faculty, and professional mentors to spend hundreds of hours understanding and solving problems in their local community.
And yet we are unable to meet demand. Every year, we turn away students who wish to start studios at their home universities because we just aren’t staffed to support them all. To train and mentor more than 2000 civic innovators, we have one fulltime staffer and three recent graduate fellows. And that’s just not enough.
How can you help?
1. Join our network as a professional mentor or community partner\n
2. Share the word with your colleagues and friends.
3. Let us know about funders who might be interested in learning more about DFA.
With your help, we envision a day when we are able to support a DFA studio at every university in the country to solve problems in their local community. We envision a nationwide network of civic innovators that can come up with solutions to local challenges spawned by events ranging from hurricanes to school shootings. With 3,500 colleges and universities in the US, DFA could put hundreds of thousands of students to work in their communities.
Click here to add becoming a Design for America mentor to your to-do list.\n
GOOD HQ is challenging the community to commit to service throughout 2013. Go here to pledge 1 percent of your time—that’s 20 hours—being part of the solution this year.\n
Image courtesy of Design for America\n
Liz Gerber is the faculty founder of Design for America. She studies innovation, technology, and organizations, and is a professor in the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University. She also directs the Creative Action Lab.\n

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