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Student Responses

By the end of this course, I offered an open invitation to welcome students to share their experience with me in the form of an interview. One student volunteered to do an individual interview, and a team of three students signed up to complete a focus group session with me.

Hannah, who completed the individual interview with me, was an animal science major who took this course to fulfill her upper-division writingintensive requirement in the major. During the interview, she spoke mainly of the design challenge as a whole and why she thought it was a valuable experience. First, Hannah noted the ambiguity in the challenge and how that inspired her and her team to approach problems that were outside her immediate experience:

I enjoyed the ambiguity and creativity to pursue a project we wanted, within reasons. For the most parts I enjoyed working on the assignments. They were very intentionally designed to be team-based. It is hard to do everything by yourself, especially if you don’t have the skills necessary to solve the problem.

When asked about her learning experience, Hannah said that she practiced applied problem solving through making an actual prototype to address the problems at hand. She also noted that she learned the importance of organizing a workflow so her team could stay on schedule:

The most challenging assignment, for me, was the proposal and prototype assignment. Most of the other assignments were built around the prototype and how it works, how users would operate within it. But, we didn’t have our prototype made until a few days before we had to turn in the proposal, so writing the proposal before having the prototype in hand was difficult. And, then the instruction set, too [needed the prototype]. As the proposal assignment was wrapping up, we were writing the instructions for using the prototype, but we wondered how were we going to do that without a full prototype.

Finally, Hannah shared a sentiment that I agreed to be a key distinction to learn from the design challenge:

We have more than enough people in the world who talk about problems; we need more people who can solve them.

The most important takeaway from my interview with Hannah was getting to know how a student negotiated her way through a wicked problem that was unclear to her and her team at first. I learned from this individual interview that one key attitude to cultivate was embracing ambiguity.

In a separate session, I met with three students who were assigned to the same team for the design challenge. Two of these students were female (Sheryl and Shelby) and one was male (George). George was pursuing a bachelor of independent studies, while Sheryl was an economics and actuarial science major, and Shelby was a health management major.

At the interview, these students were asked to share what they found valuable in the course through the design challenge and what were some challenges they faced. Shelby said she learned to apply the design thinking methodology' from an initial orientation to her team project, as well as seeing other teams’ design process:

In the beginning I wasn’t quite sure what the design thinking activity was about, but as the semester went on, I was able to see what you were trying to get at. I also thought it was cool to be able to see what the other groups were doing, not really giving out exactly everything but a preview. So, I thought to myself, “that is so cool what can we do that is like theirs and how can we make ours different at the same time.”

The three students also talked about how the team might benefit from sharing with one another their individual strengths and weaknesses in the beginning of the project. George noted the importance of not just giving one another tasks they think they were good at:

If we only focused on our strengths, I don’t think I would have developed areas that are my weaknesses.

Sheryl said that she learned how to write better from looking at George’s writing. She also highlighted that she had learned more about technical writing from the design challenge project:

Because of this course, I now have a deeper understanding of technical writing. I know how to identify a problem, describe it, gather information and data, and come up with conclusion about the problem or recommend solutions.

Sheryl added that her team learned to take the initiative to find resources that were related to their own project:

I think it is also important for students to reach out to units and departments that are pertinent to their own projects because the instructor is not that magic, and he can’t do everything.

From the team interview, I learned that students found the design challenge to be appropriate for practicing collaborative problem solving. It was encouraging to hear students reiterate the design thinking methodology in their responses, like understanding users and iterating design.

The results of this design challenge case study supported the contention that design thinking and critical making helped technical communication students locate, define, and understand wicked social problems. It allowed them to practice empathizing with users, ideating and prototyping solutions, and implementing iterative design. Through the evaluation of student projects and interview responses, I observed that students accomplish the learning outcomes designated for this course through active problem-solving exercises in the design challenge assignment sequence. As I show next, in the pedagogical activities, these exercises can be scaled and incorporated into technical communication courses of any size and degree level given their flexibility in methodological design and use.

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