Left to right: Loche McGurn, Suzanne Farrand, Carol VanderWilt, and Janet Duffy Photo from Janet Duffy

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A collaboration between Northwestern undergraduates and senior members of Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) has resulted in two first-place awards in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2017 competition.

Results of the competition, which began in 2015 and culminated in Denver last month, saw Northwestern’s first effort at the Solar Decathlon yield a total of four awards, plus friendships that developed between the Gen Y students and their Baby Boomer mentors.

When Professor Dick Co decided to enter Northwestern into the Solar Decathlon, he chose the theme “building a house for a North Shore Baby Boomer couple who want to downsize without too much compromise.”

He met with David Paul and Bruce Marx, coordinators for curriculum at Northwestern’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.

House By Northwestern (HBN) received first place for Market Potential and first place for Communications. They also took first place in the Denver Middle School students’ “Most Awesome House” award.

In awarding the first place in Communications, judges noted Northwestern students “did it all,” including “strong messaging to their target market, distinctly communicated language that meets the needs and desires of a clear audience…detail driven communications (plus) an overall strategy that considered the needs of the recipients.”

“We were lucky” said OLLI participant Janet Duffy. “We had brilliant students to work with, who relentlessly pursued excellence. These kids were focused on understanding what the seniors wanted and needed in a house – and they never took their eyes off winning.”

The first place award for Market Potential reiterated “team excellence in understanding their target client and also the broader market around the client.” The jury noted the students’ outstanding use of focus groups and in-home visits to actually see how seniors lived.

Students also returned to Northwestern with a third-place award for engineering, supported by their “excellent approach to engineering systems … showcasing favorable design for their target audience.” Judges pointed to HBN’s solar system and battery as “excellent examples of engineering masterfulness”

and noted the student presenters were able to “expertly describe the rationale for their engineering decisions.”

When Professor Co first assembled the team for the competition, he tasked them to build a “solar house.” What transpired over the course of the past year is that together, with sponsors and volunteers, they did not just build a house – they built a home – and they learned the difference.