Design with Determination

Since Fall of 2015, students at the University of Colorado Boulder have had the opportunity to see their designs come to life and help the community, thanks to Design For America (DFA), a national organization based at Northwestern University.

Carlye Lauff, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at CU, founded the DFA chapter here at CU.

“I was really passionate about starting the organization because it gives students the opportunity to work in interdisciplinary teams and look at problems that matter,” Lauff said. Instead of working within groups composed of students from a single major, DFA gives students who are majoring in business, education, engineering, sociology and many other disciplines have the opportunity to work together to create a project they care about and which can help the community.

When the organization was looking for a team lead, Timothy Visos-Ely, one of the first members of the DFA, saw the position as an opportunity to create a product to help a cause he cared about: assistive technologies.

Using a human-centered design process, as all DFA teams do, Visos-Ely and his team researched human perspectives at each stage of the problem-solving process.  The process for members of CU’s DFA includes six main steps: identifying, immersing, reframing, ideating, building and testing.

In the “immerse” phase, Visos-Ely and Lauff said, it’s crucial to examine plenty of interviews and observations to get an accurate diagnosis of the issue under consideration. To that end, DFA relies on local companies to identify the target audience, and then arrange and deliver relevant interviews and observations.

Visos-Ely’s interest in assistive technologies brought the club into contact with Flatirons Terrace, a senior living community in Boulder. The residents and staff provided Visos-Ely with a critical perspective to address the problems facing people who require mobility assistance.

“We would go to Flatirons Terrace almost every week, talking to the residents and getting to know what they do and what struggles they have throughout the day, so that gave us insight into what solution would really impact them the most.”

From there, the team went back and forth between immersion and reframing to focus in on and solve a single problem.

“You start out with a broad issue, and when you reframe, it becomes more targeted,” Visos-Ely said. “You do that until you have a problem that’s focused that you can solve.”

Visos-Ely and his team came up with hundreds of ideas. The project possibilities are so vast that Visos-Ely and other members of DFA are discouraged from thinking about what the solution, or the problem, is until well after the immersion phase.

“Your first idea is never going to be your final idea,” Lauff said. “That’s the real world, you’re never going to just have a solution work on the first try. You have to learn to fail and improve.”

After a semester of researching, reframing and developing, Visos-Ely and his team created two prototypes. One project Visos-Ely and his team worked on was a walker that could temporarily collapse to fit through tight or crowded areas where a typical walker might not fit. The other project Visos-Ely refers to as a reciprocating rollator; it’s a walker with moving handles designed to prevent upper-body muscle deterioration for people in need of mobility assistance.

“Once you start using a walker, and you start getting that muscle deterioration, you’re reliant on it and you can’t go back off of it,” Visos-Ely said he learned during the immersion phase. “You start going through a spiral of dependence. You slowly have to start getting more and more reliant on the device. We wanted to try to reverse that.”

Eventually, the reciprocating rollator project was sponsored by Medline, the largest privately-held medical supplies manufacturer. Visos-Ely and his team visited Medline’s headquarters in Illinois to present their research and process and to demonstrate how the product works. Medline now owns the intellectual property for the reciprocating rollator and the project is patent pending.

“Watching Tim’s team go through the process successfully, it was just the ideal [outcome],” Lauff said. “We want that to happen to all of our student teams.”

Most projects in DFA aren’t funded by a company as big as Medline, nor are they patented. But all of them do follow the same procedure and strive to make a change in the local community.

This year, DFA has project groups focusing on reducing food waste, teaching kids about computer aided design and creating education-related virtual reality, among other things.

“We work in a lot of areas. It’s not just healthcare or food or education,” Lauff said. “We encourage the teams to work in areas that they’re passionate about.”

Design For America’s projects rely on support from organizations on campus and around Boulder that have the same motivations as the club members. By partnering groups of devoted students with community members who help them to learn more about the problem and potential solutions, DFA encourages positive change in the Boulder community.

“You’re working on problems that matter and hoping to implement change,” Lauff said. “Seeing that change happen in the community I think is an amazing thing and a great opportunity for students.”

All of this comes less than three years after Boulder’s DFA chapter was founded, and the club has grown immensely in that relatively small time frame. In Fall of 2015, the chapter consisted of a single team with six people. Now, the club is comprised of four teams that each work on separate community projects. Lauff and Visos-Ely both said that aside from an increase in numbers, DFA has also seen an increase in commitment from the club’s members.

“Our projects will get more advanced and more successful as the years go on,” Visos-Ely said.

– Katie Pickrell

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