Members of Design for America have found plenty to improve upon in and around University Circle. They helped the Ronald McDonald House organize its donations using spreadsheets, streamlined the recycling process at a campus café, and developed a pedometer that encourages the elderly to use their walkers.

But as the local studio begins its sixth year, DFA members say they’re ready to make a broader impact in Greater Cleveland. The volunteer group—made up of students from Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art– is extending a wide welcome to its campus showcase December 7. It’s hoping to attract more off-campus community groups and causes in need of change agents.

“We identify problems and try to design solutions,” said Jasmine Lee, the studio lead for the CWRU-CIA chapter of Design for America. “We bring students from diverse backgrounds to every project. We’re donating our time because we want to make an impact.”

The chapter numbers about 50 students from CWRU and CIA. Engineering students make up the largest cohort. But Lee, a senior majoring in biology and psychology, does not feel out of place. Her teammates are aspiring scientists, artists, entrepreneurs, business managers and industrial designers.
They share a belief in innovation and a willingness to help. Sometimes, that’s enough.

The grassroots network began in 2009 at Northwestern University, where students were challenged to use design thinking to solve real-world problems. DFA chapters, or studios, spread to dozens of other campuses and emerged at CWRU in 2012.
Lee was walking through the Spring Student Activity Fair her freshman year, she recalled, when someone from the DFA table called out to her. “What do you think about designing for social good?”

“I was hooked right way,” she said. “I’m a biology major. But I really wanted to be creative and help people. This club is perfect for me.”

On her first project, she and teammates cooked up a meal at the nearby Ronald McDonald House, then helped the non-profit better organize its donations and contributions. They set up an Excel spreadsheet on an iPad and showed staff how to use it.

“Sometimes it’s a simple solution,” Lee said, smiling humbly.

A more recent project tapped both design skill and empathy. A DFA team worked with staff from Medline Industries, a manufacturer and distributor of medical supplies, to address the problem of elderly persons not using their walkers as often as they should.
Working with a local focus group of seniors, the students identified a stigma issue.

“They don’t want to start using it until they see other people using it,” Lee said. “There’s a huge emotional component.”
The solution? The students devised a pedometer for walkers, a device that allows walker-users to count their steps, set goals, and engage in friendly competition.

They called their device the “Geri-active.” Medline has said it is pursuing a patent.
“We start small but think big,” Lee said.

Sunniva Collins, an associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, is the group’s advisor. She said the students are ready to tackle larger projects farther afield and that an upcoming showcase offers a great opportunity to see what student designers can do.

The Design Spotlight will showcase team projects and personal startups as it celebrates innovation beginning at 5:30 pm. Friday, December 7, at Sears think[box]. DFA is extending an invitation to alumni, student groups, community groups and non-profit organizations—anyone with a worthy cause and a problem to solve.

Learn more about the Design Spotlight, and partnering with DFA, at the event’s Facebook page: