How can we develop strong student leaders? How can we encourage students to leave campus and work with their communities? How can we leverage university resources to create impactful projects? How can we empower passionate design thinkers and social entrepreneurs?

The pilot DFA mentor meetup connected the DFA national team, faculty, and professional mentors to brainstorm answers to these questions. Participants from DFA studios at Northwestern, WashU, Michigan State, Rice, University of St. Thomas, UVA and local professionals from Chicago gathered to discuss the future of design innovation and ways to take their studios to the next level.

Dean Ottino of Mccormick Engineering compliments mentors on their commitment to cultivating strong, interdisciplinary student teams.

The day began with sharing individual stories of impact and favorite DFA moments. “My favorite moment with DFA was when I stopped in the engineering design kitchen on campus one Saturday morning during summer break. I was so surprised to see a DFA team there finishing up their project – but these are the kinds of students who are part of DFA” commented Dr. Matthew Wettergreen, DFA Rice Mentor.

Working sessions then explored ideas around project scoping, leadership training, and the complexities of mentoring passionate DFAers.

A scoping exercise led by Daniel Rees-Lewis of Northwestern’s Delta Lab brought forth critical analysis of what a good scope looks like.

Scoping is an area in which DFA mentors have tons of knowledge from creating project briefs for classes, their own research, or past career experiences. Because mentors have these skills, working with student leads to scope projects can help their teams accomplish more during the term. 

“The hardest part of scoping is getting it the right size so it’s big enough, but not too big” Renee Zientek, DFA MSU Mentor, shared about the projects she’d worked on with DFA and as the Director of the Center for Service-Learning & Civic Engagement. This scoping tool, created by Delta Lab, is a checklist for scoping a project that is appropriate for teams to tackle in a semester or year.

Matt Easterday of Northwestern’s Delta Lab shares his research on using self-directed learning to help students teach themselves.

Student co-founders of DFA, Mert and Yuri, joined us for an afternoon discussion on how mentors mattered during their Northwestern days, and still matter today as they grow as leaders, change agents, and managers of their own startup. “Around 100 mentors gave us at least an hour of their time,” Mert shared with the group. “It’s about being transparent about your goals. You don’t hit all of them, so being vulnerable with a mentor and learning from failures is important.”


One of the biggest takeaways of the day was that when the DFA network comes together to collaborate, share, and learn, great things can happen. We can’t wait to see the impact these new connections will create for DFA and beyond. Thank you to all who attended –  we cannot wait for next year!