Taking Aim at Food Allergies

November 14, 2016
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An EDI student tests prototypes for the toolkit with users.
Jonathon Crow (center), a second-year in the EDI program, tests prototypes for the toolkit.

At the recent American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Annual Scientific Meeting in San Francisco, Dr. Ruchi Gupta might have been the sole individual presenting an eye-opening new study on the lack of integrated systems to support food-allergic students on college campuses, but the Northwestern University-based food allergy researcher was far from alone.

In fact, Gupta had the work of 15 Northwestern Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) graduate students propelling her effort.

Last spring, Gupta teamed with the students – all enrolled in the EDI program’s Human-Centered Service Design Studio course taught by Liz Gerber and Amy O’Keefe – to explore ways in which colleges and universities across the U.S. might design services to better assist students with life-threatening food allergies. Currently, few institutions have integrated plans or resources for including or accommodating the ADA-recognized disability, which can leave affected students feeling vulnerable.

Throughout the 10-week course, a hallmark of Northwestern's EDI program for the last decade, students crafted solutions to the real-world dilemma.

The students began by interviewing various stakeholders, including students with food allergies, parents, administrators and leaders of campus units like dining and housing, to understand current needs, constraints and perspectives, while also completing in-context observations across campus to better grasp the ecology of the problem.

"The ability to dive in and understand not just the constraints of living with food allergies, but also to consider the needs of each stakeholder is central to human-centered design,” O'Keefe says. “The process includes reframing problems in a way that sparks creation of tangible ideas that positively impact everyone involved."

With their research in hand, students engaged the fundamentals of human-centered design in a service context, rooting their work in collaboration, critical thinking and rapid iteration. Students investigated opportunities; created hypotheses; and experimented, prototyped, tested and evolved potential service solutions.

At the end of the course, the three-member teams presented five compelling solutions – all of them highlighted on – to drive on-campus awareness of food allergies:

  • A program that helps incoming students with food allergies become more acclimated to available support through a series of touchpoints, including a care package, phone calls from various departments, a mobile app with dining suggestions and an on-campus visit day prior to new student orientation
  • A formal program to educate and raise awareness among incoming freshman about food allergies and anaphylaxis response through repetition and use of multiple information channels such as a scavenger hunt and a student club for those with food allergies

  • A toolkit for club sports team presidents that combines student club leadership training, a team survey identifying those with food allergies and an EpiHydrate water bottle

  • A toolkit for outside food vendors at large on-campus events such as athletic competitions that includes vendor allergy training, food allergy signs and guidelines for using the signage to minimize incidents

  • An emergency response platform featuring epinephrine auto injectors that is designed to empower bystander response and automatically alert first responders

Northwestern EDI student Jonathan Crow says the service-design course allowed him to develop and evaluate new-to-the-world concepts for anaphylaxis prevention, specifically the emergency response platform he created alongside classmates Parth Bhatt and Raymond Chen.

Designing this kind of immersive experience is a key skill for any aspiring service designer and I was able to develop it in style," Crow says.

For students who will likely be tasked to design within a multi-faceted organization like Northwestern at some point in their professional careers, O'Keefe says the course affords students the opportunity to apply techniques for design research, stakeholder mapping, prototyping and developing services that translate into the professional world and carry real potential to impact lives.

"With their creative solutions, students gave new perspectives on a complex problem that exists in the college and university ecosystem," O'Keefe says. "They have reframed the conversation by presenting integrated services for inclusion of food-allergic students that could be implemented at schools across the country."