Kean Xchange recently sat down with Damon LaCapra, assistant professor of the Robert Busch School of Design, and students Roberto Hernandez, senior industrial design major from Rahway, N.J., and Roger Posso, senior interior design major from Elizabeth, N.J., to discuss their Students Partnering with Faculty project, titled Out of the Dark: Designing a Solar-powered Light to be Used by the Homeless.
Where did you come up with the idea for Out of the Dark?
LaCarpa: I read an article online about a homeless man who asked a lighting designer if he had a solar light for him to use. The homeless man said that batteries were heavy and expensive. He not only wanted the light so he could see at night, but also to use as a weapon if he was being attacked. All of a sudden, I started thinking, how can I help?
What is your research designed to do?
Research team: Our research goal has always been to help the homeless.
We started out thinking that the end result would be to design a solar flashlight specifically for the homeless.
During our research and interviews, we came to better understand how much the homeless face in their daily lives. There are hurdles at every corner. As one social worker said, ‘Being homeless is a job,’ especially when there is no direct route to assistance. What individuals who are homeless need is a venue for creating awareness and ways to engage people to be a part of the solution.
The people we met and the stories they told made us understand that anyone can become homeless.
It also made us realize that the problem is all around us – there are homeless people and homeless shelters within walking distance of our campus.
Essentially, this light will be used by the homeless or others as needed, but it will also act as a tool to create public awareness and action to bring homelessness, itself, out of the dark.
LaCarpa: This dual-purpose is a valuable concept to teach students. As educators, we want to enable our students to have the tools to solve many problems, not just one.
What did your research entail?
Research team: Our research began with those whom we wish to benefit – individuals who are homeless. We interviewed a number of people from a local homeless shelter, as well as experts in the fields of industrial design, social services, directors of homeless shelters and psychologists. We then transcribed each interview to extract data and used this information to sketch out our ideas.
How are you utilizing your skills in your particular field of study in this project?
Hernandez: In the past, many of my classes involved a similar project of a large scale, so experience has been extremely helpful. Preparation, having a clear objective and planning is always first priority. The "design" comes after all decisions such as colors, size, aesthetics, ergonomics, functionality and materials have been established. My success comes from learning from all the mistakes I made as a freshman and sophomore.
Posso: As an interior designer, I am utilizing the design instincts and design knowledge that I’ve learned in the past few years with my professors and peers. In particular, I am using my creativity and design knowledge, mixed with my team’s talents, to come up with a great design for this project.
This is an SpF project… What is the value of student-teacher research?
Research team: There is great value in interdisciplinary projects. Interior designers typically deal with large-scale environments, whereas for industrial designers, the products tend to be small-scale objects. The end result is different but the process is the same.
LaCarpa: There is much value in interdisciplinary projects. As interior designers we typically deal with large scale environments. As an industrial designer the products tend to be small scale objects. The end result is different but the process is the same. Personally, I am amazed at how lucky I am to work with Roger and Roberto. To see Roger meticulously sand down the body of the light for hours so it has the perfect ‘feel’ to it, or watch Roberto painstakingly design and paint a small on/off switch so it fits perfect has been an amazing experience. I love being the student with two amazing teachers.
Hernandez: Having a professor with more experience, and one that helps to keep the team on track, is essential. Maintaining a clear goal along with a schedule and tying it all together allows both faculty member and student to learn from one other.
Posso: You learn from your teachers and get guidance from them. Without the guidance of a teacher’s professional views and wisdom, it would make things much harder to learn and to understand. It’s like using trial and error to get where you want to be. Teachers, from experience, know the do’s and don’ts of doing research, so working with them is great.
Where are you in the process of developing the light?
Research team: The basic 3D model of our idea has been constructed. Now, we are in the final stages of the project. The final design has been selected and we are producing the body of the light, experimenting with materials, colors, shape, proportion and details. We have created working prototypes of the light and are tweaking the final product.
We also presented our research at the recent Thinking Creatively design conference as well as Kean Research Days 2012.
Student-researchers, what are your future professional goals?
Hernandez: I would love to design consumer products. Furniture, toys and sports equipment in particular, interest me. I would also like to create designs that will help the less fortunate... or to develop sustainable products that help both humans and the environment. Another element of design is to develop a product that benefits as many people as possible, so a career developing for any or all of those categories would be part of my dream job as a designer.
Posso: I hope to be working with an employer in an increasingly responsible interior design position that enables me to utilize my talents and work closely with my colleagues in the field. I see myself taking on new and exciting challenges in an enjoyable environment.