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Trio of McCormick First-Year Students Win Design Contest

Three students won the White Space Challenge for designing a natural air purifier that uses moss

Three first-year Northwestern Engineering students won a design contest for designing a natural air purifier.Three first-year Northwestern Engineering students won a design contest for designing a natural air purifier.

On National Arbor Day, an annual celebration of nature that encourages people to plant trees, Northwestern Engineering first-year students Lauren Ashby, Matthew Schilling, and Bill Yen won the 2020 Product Development Management Association’s White Space Challenge for designing a natural air purifier – named Arbor – that uses moss.

“We made a joke that it was a sign,” Yen said.

The White Space Challenge is a cross-university competition presented by the Chicago chapter of the Product Development Management Association (PDMA), in conjunction with the Northwestern University Segal Professional Bridge group, to promote white space research by challenging students to tackle real-world problems where there are currently unmet needs or where the existing solutions fall short.

Unlike other development competitions, teams research the problem and work to develop a solution to fit their stakeholder needs by conducting evidence-based research to support their work. The competition has been in existence for five years, and focuses on design research, with the final rubric a presentation of that research in support of the students' work.

The pandemic shifted this edition of the competition, open to undergraduate and graduate students from any Midwest university in any discipline. Though 10 teams from schools such as Northwestern, Purdue University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign were selected to advance to the second round of the competition, only six said they could continue due to the pandemic.

In the past, students were invited to a conference to present their final projects, including prototypes. This year, their presentations were held April 24 via Zoom. Teams showed off their sketches, 3D mockups, and renderings, and also answered questions from a judging panel of product development professionals. 

The component, which resembles a small tree, pulls in air and sends it back out after filtering it through a sprig of moss. It is designed not to clog because moss cleans itself as it captures particles from the air. That’s something normal air purifiers don’t do.

“As first-year students, we knew that we were up against a lot of seniors and graduate students, and we thought the likelihood we were going to win was very slim,” Ashby said. “When they announced we won, I was really happy. I started screaming and jumping up and down.”

The students will split a $2,500 prize, and they earned the opportunity to present at the national competition tentatively scheduled to be held in September as part of PDMA’s annual national conference. They are also considering pursuing a patent for their idea.

Ashby, Schilling, and Yen began working on the project during winter quarter, inspired by living in their dormitories. They studied the air quality in dorms and also a nursing home in nearby Niles, Illinois. They performed two surveys on air quality, asked how people feel about plants, and even discussed those topics with two different companies: Moss Mats LLC and Green City Solutions.

Professor Janice Mejia, who taught the trio in Design Thinking and Communication-1, alerted them to the contest and helped them hone their idea.

“It was a pleasure to have Bill, Matt, and Lauren in my DTC-1 class,” Mejia said. “Throughout the course they asked insightful questions about their design projects, were receptive to feedback, and ensured the user’s needs were addressed in their final prototypes.”

In the end, their idea and use of CAD stood out.

“In high school, I used to think I couldn’t win (contests) until I was a senior, and that the actual work wouldn’t start until college,” Schilling said. “I’ve realized this is real life now. It doesn’t matter how old you are, you can do whatever you want.”