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Students bring Design for America chapter to Rice

By Sana Yaklur     2/20/13 6:00pm

On Saturday, Feb. 16, a Design for America workshop to kick off a month-long design project took place in the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen. 

DFA, started at Northwestern University, is a network that brings together people from different backgrounds and majors to design a solution to a problem in their communities, event coordinator Katherine Li said. 

The workshop, hosted by DFA founder Aaron Horowitz, was the second step of the application process to get a chapter of DFA at Rice University, according to Li. 

Li said this stage of the application involves a month-long design project on a topic of applicants' choosing. At the workshop on Saturday, which was supposed to be the kickoff for the project, participants chose to try to solve the problem of bike theft. 

"We had a brainstorming session for problems anywhere - not necessarily Houston-specific - and from these broader topics, we took specific applications to Houston," said Li. "We narrowed it down to bike theft since it is really applicable and accessible to Rice students." 

To tackle the project on bike theft, the students who attended the workshop will have to do more research into the problem, Li said. 

"We've gone through the process of understanding the project in the intense two-hour workshop, but we still need more research on different perspectives on campus," Li said. "There may be aspects of [the] problem we didn't see previously." 

The first stage of the application process required applicants to go out into their community and interview five strangers on what they like about the community and what they think could be improved, Li said. 

"This gives us a local's perspective," Li said. "Through this stage, DFA wants to see whether Houston or whether Rice needs DFA. They're not just looking for interest; they're looking for opportunity." 

The students will put together a video to show the abundance of interest and dedication on campus, Li said. DFA uses the second stage to gauge the interest at Rice in a chapter. 

If they pass the second stage, both Li and event coordinator Margaret Watkins will fly to Chicago to participate in an interview with the founder and a leadership workshop, Li said. 

A chapter of DFA would bring together a group of about 15 students and would pick two or three topics for the team to tackle, Li said. The group would then be divided into subgroups, which would each work on one of these problems, according to Li. Each subgroup would have to reach out to someone in the community who was in a field related to their project, she said. For instance, according to Li, if a group was working on a project related to healthcare, it would contact someone from the Texas Medical Center. 

Li said that while DFA might sound like it is intended for engineers only, it welcomes all majors. 

"No matter what, people can always have something to say and more input can always make your work better," Li said. "Design for America can be intimidating for people who are not engineers, ... but it involves community outreach, research, and creativity, something that can be found in all majors." 

Watkins said the solutions were not always technology-heavy. 

"Solutions are never very engineering heavy," Watikins said. "They're much more creativity-based. We don't want to design new technology to solve problems. The solution can be something very simple and intuitive." 

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