Innovation Day, 3D Art, and Ice Cream



By Thaddeus Mast

Nataki Muhammad, owner of an ice cream shop in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, wandered through a sea of booths as excited Illinois Institute of Technology students presented answers to real-world problems that took months of work to solve as part of their Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program course.

Thirteen teams tackled the issue posed by Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream—how to grow and enhance Muhammad’s ice cream shop, which sits a few blocks south of Mies Campus. Groups narrowed the broad question into addressable problems and landed on solutions that ranged from expanding their social media presence, creating a new revenue stream with a new service, or opening a second location.

These teams, along with 83 additional ones who solved other challenges, showcased their work on December 3 at Innovation Day, hosted by the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship.

Launched in 1995, IPRO is Illinois Tech’s signature hands-on, real-world learning initiative and an academic requirement for undergraduate students. In spring 2021 IPRO Labs was introduced to expose students to real-world problems through partnerships with the community and industry. It now serves as the program’s foundational (first) course. This semester, projects ranged from building an at-home golf club fitting experience in partnership with Wilson Sporting Goods to designing a strategy to support the implementation and maintenance of a microgrid system in Brazil with Sargent & Lundy. Undergraduates from every academic discipline are placed on teams, which intentionally brings together a diverse range of viewpoints and creative approaches to the challenge.

Model aircraft, mechanical hands, and self-made phone apps filled the booths of other projects, but Muhammad was focused on the Community Lab, which is dedicated to helping her ice cream shop thrive.

As is common with IPRO projects, students’ ideas went in wildly different directions, even among the Community Lab projects. One team, composed of a few architecture students, wanted to tear down walls and open a drive-thru window, but Muhammad said interior demolition was out of the question. The final recommendation of the team, including Juan Gonzalez (CIS 4th Year), called for a walk-up window to handle customer overcrowding.

“I’m excited to show off what we’ve done. I’m proud of it,” Gonzalez said before the judges approached his table.

At the end of the event, winners were announced for each of the eight labs. Muhammad says the students’ solutions will have a lasting impact at Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream.

“We feel like a winner all by ourselves because all of the hard work, the passion, the dedication to this project that’s not even your business,” Muhammad told students while announcing the winning team. “One problem wasn’t solved. Several problems were solved. Thank you all so very, very, very much.”

Team Bravo, whose instructors were Bo Rodda and Dan Chichester, was picked as the semester’s Community Lab winner. The four-student team’s solution, called “Shawn Michelle’s: Spreading the Name Through Art,” would create a 3D ceiling art piece unique to the shop. Customers would upload photos to social media platforms as a form of passive advertising, the group said. The art could also serve as a visual menu.

“[Today] is a celebration of the amazing effort you guys have put into just building your projects. It’s also been a celebration of perseverance. It’s been a tough year—a tough couple of years, actually—for a lot of us, and I could not express in words how proud we are of the amazing work you have all done,” said Mahesh Krishnamurthy, academic director for the Kaplan Institute.

The winners for the eight disciplines included:

Sports Lab—Team Kansas

Community Lab, Chicago South Side Film Festival—Team Delta

Community Lab, Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream—Team Bravo

Health Lab—Team Golf

Energy and Sustainability Lab—The Electric Company

Deep Tech Track—Mochiphon

Entrepreneurship and Social Enterprises Track—Idle Hours

Digital Technologies Track—Rokaj

Photo: Illinois Tech students present their solution for a problem facing Bronzeville business Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream on Friday, December 3, during Innovation Day at the Ed Kaplan Family Center for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship.