Murphy Society Sees Inspirational Possibilities in New Initiative
- A surgeon in the midst of an operation needs to sterilize his hands quickly without leaving the procedure area.
- A Chicago-area youth center is experiencing a drop in attendance and activity participation rates.
- A diabetic child needs to learn how to inject his own insulin in case he is unable to obtain adult assistance.
These are just a few diverse examples of community challenges that were identified and creatively tackled by Northwestern’s student-led, award-winning Design for America (DFA) teams during the 2008–2009 academic year.
In their first year, the DFA teams offered innovative community solutions including: a portable hand sanitizer for doctors; detailed analysis of organizational operations at a local Chicago non-profit for at-risk youth; and a comprehensive prototype of an interactive teddy bear to educate diabetic children.
Many forward-thinking programs like DFA are made possible by leadership support from members of the Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science’s Walter P. Murphy Society—a committee of donors who assist the dean in choosing future school projects.
Named in honor of Walter P. Murphy, a leading Chicago industrialist, the Society recognizes generous annual contributors who make unrestricted annual gifts of $1,000 or more to McCormick. Contributors at this level are already members of the Northwestern University Leadership Circle (NULC); as Murphy Society members, they earn an exclusive opportunity to help make funding decisions for faculty- and student-initiated projects through an annual, committee-based selection process.
DFA is an initiative that brings together talented and passionate students throughout the University and across disciplines to collaborate with community organizations and non-profits to solve real-world problems. It was created at McCormick by new assistant professor of mechanical engineering Dr. Liz Gerber of the Segal Design Institute and Dean Julio M. Ottino. Both expressed a strong need to create an outlet that would channel the creative energy of students and contribute to the intellectual and entrepreneurial spirit of Northwestern.
Gerber, who hailed from Stanford, was inspired by the energy generated by Northwestern’s recent and impressive involvement in the Teach for America program and by the nationwide grassroots efforts of the 2008 Obama campaign.
“When I arrived at Northwestern, I looked around at the students and thought there was a real opportunity to direct their excitement for social impact,” says Gerber. In addition to their excitement, interested students come to DFA with learning experiences from a wide variety of fields—from engineering and economics to global health and psychology. And due to assistance from the Murphy Society, DFA teams are able to pursue new initiatives and expand all fields beyond traditional boundaries.
“Leadership support helps us explore, create, and transform opportunities for our students and faculty into the next century and beyond,” states Ottino. “And, thanks to the Murphy Society, McCormick can launch and fund new organizations like DFA, which allow our students to apply human-centered design skills to meaningful causes in local communities, and hopefully one day, the world.”
The DFA initiative began to take shape as Gerber worked closely with Katy Mess (SESP08), the initiative’s first consultant and strategist. As a previous student, Mess had been specializing in the field of Learning and Organizational Change at the School of Education and Social Policy and saw great value in learning more about design in the community as it relates to resolving issues.
“[I realized] design doesn’t just involve products,” states Mess. “Design takes into consideration service-oriented solutions as well.”
During its first year, groups of students enthusiastically became involved in DFA, formed various groups, and researched their own projects with faculty members as mentors. The Summer Studio Fellows program, which included more intensive projects such as the Hand Hygiene team in partnership with Evanston Hospital, also separately received impressive awards for creativity and practicality in diabetic research and solutions.
Since then, four energetic students have continued to work closely with Gerber to further develop the organization—Yuri Malina (WCAS12), Hannah Chung (McC12), Mert Iseri (McC11), and Nana Ohene-Adu (McC12).
“These students have been prototyping the organizational and leadership structure, project selection process, and managing the program on the ground floor, so to speak,” states Gerber. “They have managed to win yet another award for their online coloring book designed to empower children ages five to seven. These four have been doing wonderful work both working on design projects in the community and designing the organization itself.”
The success of DfA has garnered Murphy Society funds for the 2009–2010 academic year, which will help extend its reach across the University and, ultimately, help provide McCormick students with the resources and opportunities to solve future real-world problems.
“While engineering requires analysis, logic, and math,” states Ottino, “it also requires creative, divergent thinking if innovation is to be achieved.”
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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2009 edition of the Northwestern University Leadership Circle Newsletter.