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Data points

Twenty-four students were enrolled in this case study, and all of them remained in the course throughout the study These students represented five colleges of the university. Most of them came from the College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS) and the College of Liberal Arts (CLA). The majority of the students were juniors (17 of them), but one of them was a sophomore, and six were seniors. I used multiple methods to assess the impact of design thinking on students in this course including project evaluations, qualitative interviews, and autoethnography (via my teaching notes). Throughout the semester, I kept a running log of my teaching notes to document emergent ideas and observations. I wrote about students’ reactions to the design challenge and assignment sequence, as well as my own attitude toward teaching design in the course. At the end of the semester, four students participated in qualitative interviews about their experiences with this course. To triangulate the data collected,

I evaluated all final design projects completed in this course to determine the impact of the design thinking approach in meeting the student learning outcomes.

Cultivating Empathy

I have a vivid memory of the immediate reactions from students when I introduced the design challenge to them during the first week of the course. A few of the senior students received the instruction calmly like it was just another team project to be completed in a typical class. Some students looked particularly interested in the opportunity to produce a 3D prototype—an unusual assignment for a “writing” course. Others were unsure if they would be able to pull off completing the challenge as assigned. A few students came up to me after the first class meeting to query about my expectations for the final product, attempting to gauge the scope of work and commitment necessary for the design challenge. None of the students, however, asked to be exempted from the design challenge, nor did anyone request a different project.

The first step in the design challenge was to develop empathy for stakeholders (primarily students within the campus community) before determining the specific scope of the project. In teams of three and four, students spent a week going around the campus to observe how the students interacted with various facilities and spaces on campus. They conducted contextual inquiry (see exercise prompt at the end of this chapter) by way of informal interviews, such as asking students in a cafeteria how they use their meal plans and talking to friends in the dorm rooms about housing options on campus. These findings helped teams locate problematic areas that they felt capable of addressing as part of the design challenge. Using empathy mapping (see pedagogical exercises section), teams created user stories and requirements to guide their project direction.

A notable distinction between this initial phase in the design challenge compared to conventional academic research projects (which often began with the researcher’s point of view on particular problems) was the emphasis on empathy, which led to user-centeredness in problem solving. It encouraged students to move from a designer/researcher-centric approach to problems to a user-focused practice. Guided by empathy and user stories, students learned to involve those who were affected by the problem early and always in the design process.

Defining Project Parameters

By the end of the third week of the design challenge, each team prepared and submitted an analytical report that described the particular problem area on which they would focus, the target audience of their potential solutions, the exigence for action, the methods of intervention, and the projected expenses and limitations of the design challenge. This allowed me, as the instructor, to get an overview of each team’s focus and provide guidance on their methods and design plan.

While none of the reports in this instance required any major revision, some did have to narrow their focus. Some teams showed a huge ambition to tackle long standing problems (like the lack of parking spaces on campus) with few considerations of the limited resources they might have in this project. Thus, in my review I provided suggestions to reduce the project parameters for these teams, recommending they focus on more achievable deliverables. For example, instead of attempting to address the issues with availability of street parking and ticket prices, a team could, instead, look at new carpooling options or rethink how lots display their available spaces through digital means.

To help teams dive deeper into the problem areas they were choosing, the technical definitions and descriptions assignment let students select a technical term pertaining to their design project and provide a concise definition of the specialized term. The definition should be accompanied by a detailed explanation of objects, places, or processes as the description of the technical term. This assignment prompted students to conduct preliminary research that helped them identify relevant studies that have been done within their chosen area. It also helped them find their niche in the design challenge based on the understanding of existing research.

At this juncture, teams created some initial deliverables for the design challenge. Having students articulate their projected deliverables and ways to accomplish them early in the design challenge helped create the criteria for later use in evaluating the success of their projects. The sets of deliverables were made into a backlog of to-do items, each with an assigned start and completion date. This backlog became the checklist that kept teams moving along the design process, as well as a springboard to their ideation exercises.

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