By Published: June 12, 2019

Design for America student sketches ideas on dry erase board

What happens when students in a variety of disciplines come together to think about ways to solve problems and make positive change in local communities? 

From developing a system to reduce food waste to constructing a way to prevent tool theft at public bike repair stations, students in the Design for America organization at CU Boulder are working on a wide range of projects with community partners. They use the design process to collaborate with local entities (often non-profit organizations) to create solutions to their challenges. 

Madeline LaMee, a senior in the Technology, Arts & Media program (TAM), is part of a student team working on a project with EyeFlite, a startup company in Boulder that builds a hands-free virtual reality technology to give people with movement disabilities more independence. Using headsets with eye- and head-tracking technologies, people can type on virtual keyboards, control smart devices and play games without using their hands.

This project fits with LaMee’s interest in user experience and user interface design, as well as her desire to interact with clients in producing real-world solutions. The team worked with the occupational therapists and patients at Craig Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital in Englewood, Colorado, that specializes in neuro-rehabilitation for patients with spinal cord injuries.

“My biggest learning experience is learning to listen to people,” LaMee said. “You can’t assume you know the best way to do something for someone until you ask them. You have to really interact with the people who will be using it and get continual input from them.” 

About Design for America

DFA uses a human-centered design process to tackle social challenges through design innovation. Students from across campus working in interdisciplinary teams are matched with community members and organizations to create design solutions to challenges in a wide range of fields. 

Human-centered design is an approach to problem solving that emphasizes empathetic research while working with community members to improve solutions to their challenges.

“These projects are open ended,” LaMee said. “There’s a problem, and we try to solve it in whatever way works. This organization attracts people from all disciplines to develop a solution that can be a product, a system or an educational process. It’s for anyone who is interested in solving problems and working with community partners.” 

Some of the current projects include developing a hands-free, interactive VR game for people with spinal cord injuries; developing a better unified online student experience for CU students as a replacement for the university’s online portal; and finding ways to help students more effectively manage stress.

Rebecca Komarek, assistant director of the Idea Forge, is staff advisor for CU’s DFA chapter.

Bringing DFA to CU Boulder

DFA is a national student organization launched at Northwestern University where Komarek was a graduate student. After seeing the program’s benefits, Komarek partnered with a student to start the chapter at CU Boulder when she started her current role on campus in 2015.

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“Part of the impetus for starting DFA was that not every student has the ability in time or money to go on mission trips in other countries,” she said. “The idea is that this group works with community partners, on and off campus, focusing impact in our local community. It’s not just us coming in and telling an organization what we think they should do. The students continually work with them, brainstorm ideas, create prototypes, iterate and test prototypes.”

The group has hit two recent milestones. The 2019 campus New Venture Challenge champion, Stride Tech, has connections to DFA. The team was awarded $100,000 for inventing an attachable walker accessory that detects and corrects poor walker use habits while also providing valuable data for healthcare providers.

The project was developed in a mechanical engineering senior design course, but the original idea was generated for a DFA project three years ago for a competition on elder mobility hosted by the national DFA organization, Komarek said.

The other milestone: The CU Boulder DFA group won a $50,000 grant in collaboration with the Rocky Mountain YMCA for a project to improve lifeguard recruitment and retention. This was another competition though the national DFA organization. The local chapter will begin working with the YMCA this fall.

“Students from any discipline are encouraged to join DFA,” LaMee said. “It attracts people who are flexible, out-of-the-box thinkers who like to solve problems.”

For more information, visit the DFA website