At The DALI Lab, Ideas Become Reality
Each term, Dartmouth students work with partners in the entrepreneurial, non-profit, academic, and corporate sectors to develop innovative digital solutions.
If you walk into the DALI Lab, you might see students building a virtual reality system that lets you see the world through the eyes of a tarsier, a tiny primate with eyes bigger than its brain; in another corner of the room students might be designing an app to survey what their peers think about issues ranging from divorce to politics; still more students might be developing technology to help kids with speech impediments.
Tarsier Googles, College Pulse and Blabl are just three out of scores of projects that students at the DALI Lab have worked on in recent years. The 80 students, mostly undergrads, employed by DALI work with entrepreneurs, academics, nonprofits, and corporations to design and build digital solutions. DALI has worked with clients (called partners) ranging from The Holocaust Museum to Deloitte (a large international firm) to NASA.
DALI’s purpose is summed up through its recently-updated mission statement: "To elevate learning through the transformative process of building digital solutions from discovery to impact. We challenge ourselves to care for each other, the craft we are learning, the problems we are solving, the reality we live in, and the future we envision."
DALI has been operating since 2013, and has built an impressive reputation. Today, the DALI Lab receives more applications for partnerships than it can take. When evaluating potential partnerships, leaders at the DALI Lab focus on projects that will make an impact and provide a unique challenge and learning opportunity for students, says Erica Lobel, program manager at the DALI Lab.
“We want it to be a good opportunity for students,” she says.
Students who work at the lab are matched each term with projects that pique their interest. The students work in teams of five: two developers, two designers and a project manager. Each term, the teams deliver a solution to their partners.
The progression of the projects follows what you would see at any professional design firm. During the discovery phase, students work with the partner to make sure they understand the problem that they are addressing. The design phase, which takes up most of the term, is dedicated to crafting a solution, and includes a lot of coding to build out the solution. Finally, the team delivers their finished product.
While partners receive a great product and benefit from the unique creativity of students, the students in the lab get hands-on experience with design and software engineering.
“It's giving them that real-world experience of working on something that matters,” Lobel says. “The problem doesn’t necessarily have a right answer. There are twists and turns. The partner might change their mind. It's messy, and that's the real world.”
The unexpected lessons that emerge are invaluable.
“As a project manager at DALI, you run into challenges that don’t really occur in classroom settings,” says Shirley Zhang, D’19. Building a real product is often more rewarding than working toward a grade, students find.
Students thrive from having a dedicated space where they can explore creative, innovative solutions with like-minded peers.
“The social aspect is really strong in the lab,” says Lobel. Students are encouraged to join as first-years and sophomores and stay involved throughout their time in Hanover. Students who are new to the lab are Learners, who eventually progress to Doers. Once they know enough to help others they become Mentors, a key aspect of the program.
"Mentorship is something we cultivate in the lab,” Lobel says. “We want students to be able to turn to someone next to them and ask questions.”
A third to half of the projects in a given year are focused on entrepreneurial endeavors from within the Dartmouth community. Because the DALI Lab works in partnership with The Magnuson Center for Entrepreneurship, grant funding is often available for Dartmouth entrepreneurs who want to work with the DALI Lab.
Recently, the DALI Lab and The Magnuson Center have formalized their partnership. The organizations have worked together for 5 years on The Pitch event, and the recent formalization of their partnership is a culmination of their joint effort to bring a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship to campus. Lobel calls the partnership a marriage that allows resources and ideas to flow more freely between the two organizations.
“That's been a really advantageous thing for both of us,” she says.
It's also benefited the culture of innovation on campus.
“Together, we’re taking Dartmouth entrepreneurs from idea, into very solid reality,” says Lobel. After working with DALI, many partners leave with a functional prototype that they can then use to secure further funding. “That’s what we really love to see. To foster that entrepreneurial spirit in students is super exciting.”