The University of Michigan School of Information, in collaboration with the Problem Solving Initiative at the Law School and the College of Engineering’s Center for Socially Engaged Design, hosted a Multidisciplinary Design Jam Friday afternoon, inviting over 30 student participants to collaboratively envision new ideas for improving water safety in the Great Lakes. 

The students, mainly from the School of Information, were split into six teams and spent the afternoon brainstorming, refining and presenting their ideas. Throughout the process, the students incorporated feedback from stakeholders, including two representatives from the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, Jamie Racklyeft and Dan Metcalf.

Design Jams were launched in 2017 by a group of organizers from the School of Information, the Law School, the School of Public Health and the Center for Academic Innovation as a way to encourage interdisciplinary dialogue and generate possible solutions to large-scale problems based on the Innovation in Action challenges

According to Scott TenBrink, manager of UMSI’s Citizen Experience Design program and one of the event organizers, Design Jams provide the stakeholders with new ideas and also benefit the participating students who are exposed to interdisciplinary problem-solving. 

“We’ve worked with the Law School, Engineering, Public Health, and continue to try to reach out and get more people involved to provide this kind of multidisciplinary experience,” TenBrink said. 

The Water Safety Design Jam topic was suggested by Jamie Racklyeft, executive director and founder of the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium, who reached out after hearing about Design Jams through a colleague.

Racklyeft founded the Consortium in 2016 after nearly drowning in 2012 due to a riptide in Lake Michigan, at Van’s Beach in Leland. According to Racklyeft, the consortium aims to eventually end drowning in the Great Lakes and focuses on helping people more safely enjoy the water. Currently, there are over 3,500 drownings in the United States annually and there have been more than 800 in the Great Lakes since tracking started in 2010. The Great Lakes Water Consortium also states that drowning is the number one cause of death in children between ages 1 and 4. 

Racklyeft said he was grateful for the opportunity to hear students’ creative ideas on how to tackle the drowning epidemic. 

“To have some of the best and brightest students coming at this from a fresh perspective with the cutting-edge problem-solving skills they have, like design thinking and so on, is really, really exciting,” Racklyeft said.

Racklyeft said there are a few basic steps that need to be taken to prevent drownings. People need to be able to swim; they need to have information on water safety, lake conditions and riptides; they need to have access to a lifeguard and safety equipment; and they should be familiar with the mantra “Flip, Float, Follow,” a drowning survival technique. One major challenge, Racklyeft said, is disseminating water safety information and getting swimmers to actually take measures toward improved water safety, so the Consortium is looking for new, innovative strategies. 

“There’s a lot of fundamentals that we know, but then we know that we need more innovative approaches, especially in how to persuade people,” Racklyeft said. “It’s one thing to inform them about the danger, but it’s another to get them to actually change their behavior towards something a little safer, like putting on a life jacket, like swimming near a lifeguard, like making sure there’s rescue equipment if necessary, or just in general, if it looks like it might be dangerous, trust that little voice.”

Racklyeft kicked off the Design Jam by discussing the importance of water safety and sharing his story. According to TenBrink, after Racklyeft shared a video about his experience and the emotional impact of drownings, the room fell silent. TenBrink said Friday’s Design Jam was unique in that it centered around a heavy topic. 

Even if students don’t have direct experience with drownings, TenBrink said he feels it’s a topic many people can connect to emotionally. 

“When you think about Great Lakes drowning, maybe you’re not directly connected to that, but it feels like something that would be really great to be part of a solution for,” TenBrink said. 

Most of the groups focused on ways to better spread water safety information and make safety equipment more accessible. Ideas included a kids’ water safety mascot similar to Smokey the Bear, who represents fire safety; a safety sign connected to a push message and Amber Alert; a kids cereal box with information; a “Flip, Float, Follow” social media campaign and different methods of supplying safety kits and materials on beaches. 

The groups built or drew small-scale prototypes of their ideas and pitched them to the stakeholders, then had ten minutes to refine their products. The groups then gave two-minute presentations to the room. 

The winning idea picked by the stakeholders was a multifaceted approach to encouraging the usage of safety equipment, especially life jackets. Information junior Sai Surbehera, a member of the winning team, pointed out that almost 90 percent of drowning victims in the U.S were not wearing life jackets. His team aimed to make life vests more accessible by providing safety equipment stations on beaches. 

Surbehera said there are many psychological reasons for not wearing a life vest, including tanning or wanting to look cool. Surbehera’s team tried to confront the problem by conceptualizing a Snapchat filter that would turn a life vest into six-pack abs. According to Surbehera, this also played upon the fact that the vast majority of drowning victims are male. 

One interesting aspect of the Design Jam, Surbehera said, was working with a group representing a wide range of backgrounds. Most of his group members came from areas with many beachfronts, including New Jersey, Washington state and Michigan, but each member had a different understanding of beach culture. As a result, Surbehera said, the team could better address some of the cultural factors affecting life jacket usage. 

In announcing the winning team, Racklyeft said the stakeholders found the focus on life jackets compelling, since so few drowning victims are wearing safety equipment. Still, he said he was impressed by all the ideas and plans to incorporate them into the Great Lakes Water Safety Consortium’s future work.

“Every single idea is great, and we’re going to pursue every single idea,” Racklyeft said. 

Going forward, organizers of the Design Jam series said they hope to open up the event to more majors and schools. Echoing the sentiments of the organizers, Surbehera said he enjoyed the collaborative, fast-paced experience and would like to see students from more majors, especially business and engineering, become involved in Design Jams. 

“People should take more of this opportunity,” Surbehera said. “The biggest challenge would be, how do you make this more accessible? And again, many of the students are graduate students, so how do you target undergraduate students?” 

Upcoming Design Jam topics include voter registration, payday lending, public engagement, nuclear energy and water access in rural Ecuador. This academic year is the first where there will be a series of Design Jams. TenBrink said the team has committed to holding four events this semester and would like to carry the momentum into next semester. 

TenBrink said he hopes to increase student involvement in the Design Jams, which provide a unique experience because they allow for more imaginative thinking than a typical college class.

“This is very different than a classroom experience,” TenBrink said. “The classroom is, ‘you’ve got to do this assignment, do it with this person.’ This doesn’t say you have to land anywhere; it really opens up for imagination.”


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