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Design for America at Illinois composes innovation

A+patient+hugs+a+Therapalz+prototype.+These+animals+currently+have+the+ability+to+vibrate%2C+mimic+a+real+heartbeat%2C+and+in+the+cat+models%2C+purr+in+order+to+soothe+those+with+mental+illnesses.
A patient hugs a Therapalz prototype. These animals currently have the ability to vibrate, mimic a real heartbeat, and in the cat models, purr in order to soothe those with mental illnesses.

A patient hugs a Therapalz prototype. These animals currently have the ability to vibrate, mimic a real heartbeat, and in the cat models, purr in order to soothe those with mental illnesses.

The Daily Illini File Photo

The Daily Illini File Photo

A patient hugs a Therapalz prototype. These animals currently have the ability to vibrate, mimic a real heartbeat, and in the cat models, purr in order to soothe those with mental illnesses.

By Chinmaya Sharma, Contributing Writer

From projects like creating more satisfactory naps to making a ‘greener’ Green Street, innovation on campus knows no bounds. Neither does Design for America (DFA).

DFA has come a long way from its humble beginnings in Evanston. Today, it boasts a network of over 3,000 students, with a presence in 35 universities nationwide. A student-run organization, DFA hopes to positively impact the local community through student innovation.

At the University’s chapter of Design for America, DFA Illinois, there are five ongoing projects. One of them is a DFA Nationals Project sponsored by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. This prestigious sponsorship is only granted to the top five pitches presented. With their project, the group aims to explore communication between autonomous cars and pedestrians at multi-modal crossroads.

Nate Mollway, the Director of Marketing and Project Manager for DFA Illinois, is a senior in FAA. “The University is a great place for the project. On one side, you have Champaign which is similar to downtown … and five minutes later, you have cornfields,” Mollway said.

One of DFA’s most successful projects to date is TherapAlz. Now a start-up, TherapAlz was aimed at reducing the emotional and physical burden of people taking care of Alzheimer’s patients. Notably, TherapAlz was a finalist at the Cozad New Venture Competition.

Lucas O’Bryan, the vice-president of DFA Illinois, is a junior in Engineering. Talking about the concept of TherapAlz, he said, “They make smart therapeutic stuffed animals that benefit the care of individuals with Alzheimer’s and dementia.”

Mollway also described the project’s concept as “designing for those who haven’t been designed for … An artificial stuffed toy like TherapAlz gives Alzheimer’s patients a sense of control, and acts as a much-needed companion for the caregivers,” Mollway said.

As an interdisciplinary design group focused on social impact projects, there are times when DFA Illinois works in tandem with non-profits, other RSOs, and even with other chapters of Design for America.

Given the eye-catching work that they do, it’s not surprising that they’ve attracted sponsors such as 3M and Pixo. However, as well intentioned as DFA projects are, their implementation can face numerous obstacles at times.

Riya Shah, the President of DFA Illinois, is a junior in Business. Talking about roadblocks, she admitted,  “University guidelines can be a major hurdle.”

Shah took the example of Emotional Regulation, an ongoing project that aims at creating de-stress environments for college students in the library.

“Initially, project members were working with the Undergraduate Library, but are now looking for new venues for their project,” Shah said.

She explained that the library did not have enough room.

As a sub-set of a larger national organization, DFA Illinois frequently interacts with other DFA branches.

“Every month, there are cohort calls in addition to an annual leadership and networking conference during August,” O’Bryan said. “There’s also a Midwest Meet-Up for DFA studios in the region that member universities take turns hosting, with Purdue set to host it next February.

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