New IPRO Labs Bring Students and Community Together to Create Innovative Solutions


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With so many daily operations tasks to sustain a community organization or small business it can be tough to find the time to research and innovate new ideas. Thanks to new partnerships with Illinois Tech’s Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program, students are working collaboratively with community and business leaders to develop new ideas that will strengthen local organizations.

The new IPRO Labs launched in spring 2021 to provide a new framework for students to get hands-on experience using an innovation mindset to address real-world issues while building relationships with the local community. IPRO Labs is part of The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship and is the central component of KI’s commitment towards community development, partnership building and civic engagement with Bronzeville and beyond. Illinois Tech’s director of community affairs, Alicia Bunton, and Adrienne Irmer, associate vice president for external affairs, recruited and connected community and industry partners with IPRO, and were key collaborators throughout the semester.

Senior IPRO lecturers Bo Rodda and Limia Shunia met with community and industry partners to learn about the organizations and develop design briefs that outline unmet needs. Students reviewed all the materials at the beginning of the semester and got to choose the labs and projects that they were most interested in.

“We’re focusing on student experience by working on projects that embody major shifts and trends in industries and are also local. They have a lot of meaning for our students because of the tangible connection to communities in Chicago and potential for impact,” Shunia says. “I think that was really exciting for the students to see a real-world situation where enterprising leaders -entrepreneurs, activists, creators - in surrounding communities were thinking outside the box to shape the future, and talk to someone that they could attach a name and a face to. The new IPRO Lab structure provides Illinois Tech students with a distinct learning opportunity and important life/early career experience. Applied technical expertise, design, innovation, and collaborative problem solving through community projects provides an optimal learning experience for Illinois Tech students.”

Like other courses in the IPRO program, cross-disciplinary teams of students with different majors and class years work together on projects. The spring IPRO Labs had 61 teams and approximately 75 students. Regular lunch and learns were scheduled with community partners and experts to provide students with more opportunities to learn about the problem they’re working on. Some of the teams, particularly those working on architectural improvements or projects related to a specific space, also visited with their community and industry partners. The community and industry partners for the spring session included eta Creative Arts Foundation, HotHouse Theater, R.A.G.E. Skate Park, Parkway Ballroom, Cook County Assessor’s Office, and Sargent & Lundy.

Rodda says one of great things about the IPRO Lab structure is that it gives students more flexibility to pick projects that resonate with them. The students must fully understand the problem they’re working on, develop a well-researched solution, and create a compelling communication package that shows the importance of the problem and validity of their solution. Students gain a lot of different skills from this process that will serve them well in their careers, Rodda says, all while directly helping the community. He says the passion and spirit that they put into the work really shines in the final product.

 “We really encourage the students to be creative and expressive and kind of flex that right side of the brain a little bit,” Rodda says.

eta Inclusive Theater and R.A.G.E. Skate Park

The eta Creative Arts Foundation is a cultural resource institution focused on the “preservation, perpetuation, and promulgation of African-American aesthetic.” For the past 50 years, the nonprofit has provided professional opportunities through performance and on-the-job training for the development of both youth and adults as artists and technicians through arts in education programs and residencies, and gallery space for original art by visual artists.

eta wants to make the theater experience more inclusive by expanding opportunities for people with disabilities (PWDs) to fully participate in the theatre experience. From artists, staff, and volunteers, to improving the audience experience, eta aspires to be a model for inclusive theater that is responsive to the needs of people with disabilities.

Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert, eta volunteer and disability rights activist, says that access and inclusion are two different things that are important to the theater experience. Rather than seeing Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) accessible parking spaces and closed-captioning as a burden or add-ons, students were challenged to see things from a disability consciousness perspective. Hébert says this shift in thinking with the end-user’s experience in mind leads to more universal design solutions that benefit all theater patrons. To assist students in their research, Hébert, along with eta’s IT manager Beverly Harris, put together a panel of artists that included an actress who is deaf, a sound designer who is blind, a lighting designer who uses a wheelchair, and a backstage/stage manager to share their insights and experiences on being disabled and working in the theater.

Each project brought eta invaluable insight about disability and technologies that could improve the theater experience for PWDs, Hébert says. In addition to identifying ADA compliance improvements, students suggested building collapsible seats to give PWDs and their theater companions more flexibility in seat choice in the theater. Another idea involves creating a tactile wall map and wayfinding flooring so that a theater patron who is blind or low vision can feel different surfaces that lead to the theater, washrooms and other spaces. Hébert says one of the most thought provoking and imaginative student ideas is to embed braille into the handrails to provide information as patrons enter the theater.

The teams also came up with a variety of smart phone uses. “Translation in Space,” a winning design concept, was a full theater immersion app that utilizes cameras and microphones to provide patrons with translation options on their personal devices that are integrated with the theater’s system. Among its features, the app can show patrons where their seats are located; livestream the performance with American Sign Language captions transcribed in real time so that a patron doesn’t have to be in view of a visual interpreter; and adjustable audio options. According to the team’s final presentation, the app “combines translation tools typically confined to their own independent apps” and combines it with technology already available in the theater, creating a cost-effective platform that can be used by all theater patrons.

Kiara Jasunas (CS 4th Year), a computer science major and a member of the “Translation in Space,” says that the project was a great opportunity to work with PWDs, a community that often doesn’t receive equal attention for innovative design solutions. Working with eta artists was incredibly helpful to understanding the target audience, she says, and gave them great ideas to run with from the start. The team wanted to be thoughtful and thorough in their research, Jasunas says, and one of the challenges was finding a good time to stop collecting information and start the prototype. She says the IPRO Lab has helped her understand project workflow in a career setting.

“It walked me through working with team members and employers all while reminding me that I have to stick to a timeline and present a deliverable at the end.  No matter how often that is repeated, until it is lived, it isn’t truly learned,” Jasunas says. “Bo and Limia were always helpful at providing feedback and keeping our project moving which is a good mindset to keep with me in future endeavors, to pay attention to what others are saying and keep the work flowing.”

Hébert says that eta had a team of people review the projects and everyone was excited by the ideas. The theater hopes to build a new campus in the future, she says, and the inclusive architectural solutions from the project will be kept in mind when they hire an architect. The COVID-19 pandemic forced eta and other theaters to consider creative solutions with technology, and Hébert says the IPRO Lab projects were eye opening to many staff, artists and volunteers and “planted the seeds” for what could be possible.

“It just got people to think about ‘What if,’ as opposed to, ‘Oh my God, we can’t do that. We don’t know how to do that. We don’t have the staff, we don’t have the money.’ And it was just don’t. ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ which is what people with disabilities hear all the time,” she says. “This was the game changer because it brought eta into a process and a meilleur that is high tech.”

R.A.G.E., which stands for Release Anxiety to Gain Excellence, is a multidimensional company that “blends music, sports, fashion ,and culture through educational platforms with a unique and edgy style that transcends age, race, and income.” R.A.G.E. Foundation Inc. has previously partnered with other nonprofit groups to provide engaging “edutainment” programs for youth.

For the past several years, R.A.G.E. has been working with the Brown Memorial Park Advisory Committee in the Chatham neighborhood on a proposed skatepark. There are currently no skate parks on the city’s South Side. The skate park would also provide opportunities for youth to learn about music, art, film, fashion, and business development through skater culture and inspire them to develop an entrepreneurial mindset. IPRO students developed innovative ideas that incorporated all of these elements together through programs, business initiatives, and the design of the park itself.

Among the ideas were a new website for Brown Memorial Park, community garden, indoor education and recreation center, an online platform to learn about entrepreneurship, public art and mural painting opportunities for local students, design competition, and a skate festival. One team created plans for a hybrid skate shop and workshop that would provide a standard retail experience with opportunities to learn how to design, repair, and sell skateboards, as well as rentals for the park.

Lamar Flowers, CEO of R.A.G.E., says that working with the students was an amazing experience and that the teams came back with “brilliant ideas and strategies to assist us with different stages and phases of the development.” Flowers says R.A.G.E.’s top pick was Team Golf’s project to create a skate park with geothermal heating solutions built under the concrete. This sustainable design would provide heat to make the outdoor skatepark a year-round attraction in the fall and winter seasons.

“The ideas and concepts shared by IIT students along with our business model, business plan and implementation strategies strengthens our purpose to create a unique opportunity and recreational environment based on a necessity and need to advance our park districts,” he says. “It also supports our goal to create educational entrepreneurship opportunities for all students and families within our own neighborhoods.”

Carl Lewis, president of the Brown Memorial Park Advisory Council, says the students’ work is a valuable contribution because their videos and final projects allowed the council to see what the physical improvements to the park could look like. Their ideas to create a “smart park” with free wifi, talking benches and other technology, support the council’s efforts to create an attraction that will bring much needed revenue to Chatham.

“They were thorough and added positive suggestions, and in some cases, looked into some areas that our community did not include, but were vital to the overall success of our program,” Lewis says. “IPRO’s assistance has given us a base template that can and will be used in other communities around the country in neighborhoods that need new development and competitive competition.”

Nico Lynn, who was the lead for the renewable skate park team, says that he signed up for the project because he liked the idea of designing a recreational space for kids that could also spark an interest in STEM (Science Technology and Math) education. Lynn, who graduated last May, says the IPRO Lab taught him important lessons in how to manage a team with diverse skill sets and work collaboratively to leverage each other’s strengths to deliver a plan that met R.A.G.E.’s goals.

“The IPRO team experience is indispensable to working in the engineering field, where I constantly am working in team-based environments that succeed with communication and productive collaboration,” he says. “Being able to coordinate as a team in-person while also maintaining digital connections helps to increase the throughput and efficiency of the micro-factory environment I work in now.”

Lasting Partnerships, Lifelong Lessons

IPRO Labs is now the IPRO program’s foundational (first) course. The spring IPRO Labs consisted of five labs—CommunityLab, CityLab, EducationLab, GameLab, and EnergyLab. Shunia says that CommunityLab will be the one constant for the IPRO Labs and the other labs will rotate based on the community and industry partners that are involved each semester. This semester, the GameLab and EnergyLab will rotate out and be replaced by SportsLab and HealthLab.

Rodda and Shunia say they are pleased with how the inaugural semester went and look forward to building lasting relationships with some of the community and industry partners. Niharika Hanglem, who joined KI as program director last spring, has been instrumental in working with the community partners in IPRO Labs this fall and is spearheading several other initiatives that tie directly to community engagement and development.

The final project videos and other collateral can be used by the partners to show to their CEOs and boards to encourage them to implement some of these ideas in the future, Rodda says. Shunia says that students are interested in opportunities to make an impact on the world around them. She hopes that working with community and industry partners in the IPRO Labs will give students a unique “forever lens” that shows them how gaining an understanding of the users they are designing for will fuel creative problem solving. Ultimately, Shunia says this builds meaningful experiences that people respond to and increases likelihood for impact. Hébert hopes the collaboration with eta has left an impression on students.

“I think the biggest joy is that in the midst of a pandemic more than 50 students of different races, different cultures, different backgrounds, and different countries of origin, got a chance to do a deep dive into disability. Each of those students is going back to a community,” Hébert says. “Beyond eta, that is the most important thing to me: that they will now think about theater differently. Whenever they go to a theater, they are bringing a heightened sense of disability consciousness to their work.”