New student group combines engineering and advocacy

    Last February, Design for America had about ten members and lacked real structure or direction. Now, just a year later, roughly 200 students are involved. Initiatives have been established at Dartmouth and Cornell, with leads on a branch at Yale, as well.

    Design for America (DFA) is a year-old club on campus that tackles social issues through student creativity and design. Though it was founded through the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the organization comprises students from all schools and backgrounds in order to maximize the creative input toward solving social issues.

    This Saturday, DFA held a social issues workshop, which served as an application-screening forum for participants hoping to work with the organization’s summer program.

    Written applications were due Friday, and applicants were asked to come to the event on Saturday to further their preparation for a six-week program this summer devoted to working extensively on a design project.

    According to sophomore Yuri Malina, an original member and active participant, the club offers an outlet to a lot of students to practice what they learn, especially in the engineering school.

    “I think we’ve kind of found a niche of people who don’t just want to sit around in their rooms and do homework—they want to do something with what they’re learning,” Malina said.

    The organization was started by Professor Elizabeth Gerber, who came to Northwestern from Stanford with the idea for a student-led organization that would use design to give back to the community. She gained support from the administration and recruited about ten students to participate last February.

    Since its inception, one of the biggest projects that DFA has taken on has been an attempt to minimize water use in campus dining halls. Malina explained that last quarter, DFA students were able to see the inner workings of a dining hall kitchen on the clean-up end.

    He explained that though there are trash cans near the conveyor belts where students can dump their leftover food, most just send their dishes back full of food. They are then sprayed off by Sodexo workers on the other end of the belts, using water that could be conserved.

    In order to force students to scrape off their own food, the design team conceptualized a dish rack where diners would only be able to insert plates vertically rather than leaving still-full plates of food flat on a conveyor belt.

    Malina said that the pilot for this design would hopefully be available this year and that a test run would be implemented in the Sargent dining hall. If it works in the way the DFA team thinks it should, the design will expand to Allison and other major dining halls, eventually leading to a decrease in the amount of water that dishwashers need to use on campus.

    The goals of other projects range from creating more sanitary conditions in hospitals to encouraging people in Chicago to use public transportation.

    “Something that’s very key to Design for America is that, even though all of these projects have a local impact, they can really be transferred globally,” Malina said.

    The club is even working on a project that will redesign the curriculum for McCormick classes, which currently teach and encourage sustainability, but then give assignments that generate large amounts of paper, cardboard and foam waste.

    Each project is tackled by a team of four of five people, ranging from engineers and computer scientists to journalists and artists, who observe social issues around them, brainstorm ways to solve these problems, and then work to implement them.

    In the future, Malina hopes to see branches of DFA on every college campus and establish the club as a national not-for-profit organization.

    Malina explained that Saturday’s event basically encompassed an entire six weeks’ worth of potential work in just six hours, including stages of observation, brainstorming, and implementation for various projects. He emphasized that it is vital for the club to recruit people from diverse backgrounds since a fresh perspective is sometimes the best way to solve a problem.

    “The most creative solutions come from outside of a problem,” Malina said. “While you need people who know about a problem and know the constraints… you also need people to come up with things the others never would have thought of.”


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