Campus cross-pollination drives partnership between Siebel Center for Design and Illini Solar Car

Illini Solar Car

SCD and Illini Solar Car Video

Campus cross-pollination drives partnership between Siebel Center for Design and Illini Solar Car

By Heather Coit

Rachel Switzky opens the east entrance door to Siebel Center for Design as she greets her tour guests with a big smile. Switzky, the facility’s inaugural director and self-described morning person, is running on all cylinders this late-July morning as she ushers a group of 15, mostly University of Illinois alumni, into the spacious Gallery. The group represents a cross-section of majors to include civil engineering, computer science, urban planning, and communications. Their shared goal is to discover what the new, human-centered design space offers its occupants and visitors.

Rachel Switzky leads a group of alumni through SCD
Rachel Switzky, director of Siebel Center for Design, leads a group of mostly University of Illinois alumni on a tour of the facility.
Photo by Heather Coit

Sunlight streams down on the group through large windows as Switzky reflects on her college days at Illinois where she earned both a bachelor’s and master’s degrees in industrial design.

“I was trained in Art & Design right across the street back in the ‘80s, but we didn’t call it design thinking then,” Switzky said. “It was just more of the design process.”

Switzky describes how her background in design consulting led to her decade-long role as an executive director at international design and consulting firm IDEO. When the opportunity to become a visionary leader at her alma mater came, she accepted and left Silicon Valley to return to the Land of Lincoln.

“Now I’ve come back to be the director for Siebel Center for Design, which is this wonderful, new 68,000 square-foot building  that we have been honored to have as a presence on our campus.”

The center was made possible by a $25 million gift from Thomas Siebel (B.A’75, History, MBA ’83, M.S.’85, Computer Science) and the Thomas and Stacey Siebel Foundation. The building itself was designed by architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, whom Switzky credits for bringing the ground-up, cross-discipline design school to life.

“The architects really wanted to focus on transparency, to showcase people working, and to bring in the light,” Switzky said, standing beneath circular skylights that dot the ceiling above. “SCD is supposed to be about the work and activities being done in the building.”

The Gallery, described as a primary gateway into the building, is one such area that invites collaboration in the open with its groupings of movable furniture and whiteboards on wheels.

This space has been designed to accommodate teamwork. I wanted to make sure you can reinterpret the space as you need. The design principles for this building are about flexibility and agility so you can use this space in multiple ways.

- Rachel Switzky

Switzky plans to extend the same adaptive application to classrooms, turning to her design background to reshape instruction across campus. SCD is the springboard to make that happen. She has spent the last three years meeting one-to-one with faculty members to generate ideas on how to approach classes and their subjects in new ways.

“This is where we’re trying to get people to think a little more outside the box, and how you edge people into that is by bringing in these layers of new ways of thinking,” Switzky said. “It’s necessary to prototype these ideas to see how we can change the culture of the university.”

This semester, Switzky and her team are working with The Grainger College of Engineering, Gies College of Business, and the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences to tailor faculty development programs, which coincide with SCD’s launch of broad, professional development workshops. 

Members of the Illini Solar Car team work on their car Brizo
Illini Solar Car members use The Garage at SCD to house both solar cars, Argo and Brizo. The team is pictured here prepping Brizo ahead of its racing debut at the 2021 American Solar Challenge over the summer. 
Photo by Heather Coit

After making more tour stops, including The Shop, which boasts access to a water jet cutter, 3-D printers, and laser engravers, the group finally arrives at the Garage.

On the other side of a window sits Argo, the Illini Solar Car team’s first-generation solar car. Just days before, the studio was a flurry of activity with solar car members prepping Argo’s successor, Brizo, for its debut at the 2021 American Solar Challenge. SCD was one of Brizo’s sponsors for the race.

The team, currently with over 100 members, has utilized the studio since February and happens to be SCD’s first RSO-in-residence.

As Switzky describes the collaborative work that’s done in the studio, she reminisces about being impressed with Engineering Open House’s annual showcase of innovations and its ability to bring two sides of campus together. She wants to see that same “cross-pollination” happen year-round between North and South campuses so students from different disciplines connect and learn what’s available to them. For Switzky, the partnership between SCD and Illini Solar Car is a catalyst to make that happen.

Illini Solar Car

Brizo’s big unveiling was supposed to happen during EOH in March 2020, but the global pandemic had other plans for the sleek car and its engineers. Illini Solar Car members adjusted to the setback by donning face masks and socially distancing from each other as they continued to fine-tune Brizo over the summer at their Urbana garage location last year.

Perseverance paid off as the team found new ways to engage with potential members, making that fall’s recruitment season their most successful yet, according to Rishi Mohan (B.S. ’23, Industrial Engineering, minor in Statistics), the team’s current Director of Operations.

With a core group of 50 new members added to the team, Illini Solar Car geared up for a virtual unveiling of Brizo at EOH 2021 while they quietly began a partnership with SCD. The Engineering Design Council, which helps support RSOs in engineering design, initiated the collaboration by alerting the team to potentially available space at SCD.

“SCD and Illini Solar Car are kind of perfect for each other,” Mohan said. “We bring engineering-focused multidisciplinary design to a space that’s perfect for just that, and SCD provides unparalleled access to collaborative spaces and resources that help an engineering team like ours succeed.”

Rishi Mohan

“This building is all about the future. I think the largest impact that SCD offers, not only the collaboration spaces, is access to the kind of prototyping equipment that we as students need to build the next great thing.”

- Rishi Mohan

For recent alumna Priyal Gosar (B.S. ’21, Computer Engineering), who was a race team captain at the 2021 American Solar Challenge, The Garage allows their five sub teams to work together in one place.

“Previously, our team had been separated in different locations on campus,” Gosar said. “So mechanical was in one spot, and electrical was in another. With this space, we can all come together to make design decisions in a nice environment.”

Alex Chmiel (B.S. ’24, Electrical Engineering), an electrical lead who joined the team last year, agrees that there are advantages to working under one roof.

“You have a meeting place, like this garage, where you can discuss things with teammates while the car is right there,” Chmiel said. “It helps you more effectively manage a team and build a solar car.”

Mohan points out that some of the hands-on equipment also helps extend some of the available resources already offered at ECE OpenLab and Grainger IDEA Lab.

As Gosar looks ahead to working as a firmware engineer at Apple, she predicts the design center’s advantages will branch out to RSOs across campus.

“I think a lot of other RSOs would benefit from working at the Siebel Center for Design because you’re able to work with other teams, see other RSOs doing their thing, and maybe you’ll get an idea for your own project,” Gosar said.

Switzky also shares this vision.

It’s important for us to create collaborative spaces for RSOs, like Illini Solar Car, because it helps emphasize multidisciplinary cross-pollination to these projects. If we can have engineers working with designers working with humanists, scientists, business majors, and other types of disciplines on campus, it will help broaden their perspectives to provide further inspiration and innovation to the projects they’re working on.

- Rachel Switzky

RSOs and SCD promote sense of community

Argo will soon have a roommate. After a fourth-place finish in the Single Occupant Vehicle class at the American Solar Challenge in early August, the Illini Solar Car team is bringing Brizo back to The Garage at SCD.

“We’re really looking forward to using some of the resources for rapid prototyping, figuring out how to improve Brizo, and design the next Illini Solar Car,” Mohan said.

Mohan, Gosar, and Chmiel all began their involvement with Illini Solar Car when they were freshman. Each member has learned skills to take back to the classroom and beyond, discovered new interests, and gained a sense of community at a large university.

Chmiel, who learned soldering and PCB assembly along with leadership and administrative training from the team, also credits the RSO with giving him rare, in-person opportunities his first year at Illinois.

Alex Chmiel works with Illini Solar Car teammates

“Being a freshman, especially during a pandemic, was so hard when coming to college and not knowing anyone. Illini Solar Car really allowed me to meet new people, form friendships, and find something I definitely see myself doing the next four years of college.”

- Alex Chmiel

As a seasoned veteran of the team, Gosar is ready to take her four-year experience to Apple while staying affiliated, like fellow alumni who have gone on to work at places like John Deere and Northup Grumman. Their contribution includes offering the team advice on various projects.

“I’ve done a lot of work on the car’s battery system and run firmware for it, so that will directly translate into my role at Apple where I’ll be a firmware engineer,” Gosar said. “Post-graduation, I hope to remain connected with this team. I’ve learned a lot from it, so I hope to give back; whether that’s volunteering my time or passing down knowledge to new members.”

The university is home to over 800 RSOs, and Switzky hopes to see more of them across campus and from all backgrounds, find a home for themselves now that the doors have opened at SCD.

“We’ll be encouraging RSOs, like Illini Solar Car, to utilize the elements of design thinking and human-centered design in their projects; where they can take our courses and workshops here.” Switzky said. “We want them to absorb these principles so that they intuitively bring them into their processes.”

After SCD held a soft opening on August 2, Switzky is prepared to watch the design center really come to life now that doors are open to all students, faculty, staff, and community visitors. Once SCD is at full capacity, with spaces bustling with activity and engagement, its future will begin to reveal itself.

“We might have an idea of what full potential means at this moment in time, but as we learn and gather inspiration from the use of the building, it’s going to give us more insights about what its full potential could be,” Switzky said. “That’s just going to continue to iterate over the next months and years.”