Core 110: Learning by design

Student whiteboard
Design Thinking students in two different groups jot down ideas on a whiteboard.

Design thinking is a phrase that describes one way that human beings can approach problem-solving. Sweet Briar isn’t the only college that teaches it, but there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what it really means. “I had no idea what it was when President Woo came on board,” says Joshua Harris, assistant professor of music. “But when I learned more about it, I knew it would be relevant to what I do. Artists sometimes get paralyzed thinking that they have to create a masterpiece, but that’s not true. Iteration is part of composing and there’s a lot of overlap between creative arts and design thinking.”

CORE 110: Design Thinking is the first class in the College’s Leadership Core Curriculum. It was team-taught by four faculty members: Josh Harris, music; Christopher Penfield, philosophy; Jessica Salvatore, psychology; and Kaelyn Leake, engineering.

One reason it’s the first course in the core is because it can be applied to so many different fields. Kaelyn Leake, assistant professor of engineering, says that although there’s already an engineering design process, design thinking can be complementary and both processes are based on similar principles. “I think anyone who truly learns design thinking will see their field in it,” she says.

Design Thinking Quad
Professors Jessica Salvatore (psychology) and Chris Penfield (philosophy) address students with megaphones in Sweet Briar’s Quad early on during the three-week class. In the background: Joshua Harris (music) and Kaelyn Leake (engineering)

All of the faculty teaching the class went to Stanford last winter to train at its design school. For them, design thinking is as much about defining problems as solving them. In order to design anything, you first have to know what problem you’re trying to solve, a skill Jessica Salvatore, associate professor of psychology, says can be applied to almost every aspect of college. For example, she says, “It’s a universal experience to be assigned a paper for a class and to not know where to begin because you can’t describe the problem you’re trying to research. If students can learn to define problems, they’ll be able to apply that skill to every project in every class they take, as well as to the professional problems they’ll solve after graduation.” Penfield agrees. “You can’t solve any problem until you identify the issue,” he says. “Learning to locate, identify and define the problem is an important first step in becoming a problem-solver.”

One thing that makes design thinking at Sweet Briar different is that it’s a required course that everyone has to take. “We often heard from the students that the class didn’t feel ‘like college,’ so clearly, it’s not what everyone is doing,” says Salvatore. “I’ve never heard of anyone teaching a framework of defining problems in a systematic way to every single student in an incoming cohort. That makes it different.”

For students, although the class may have been strange at first, it was worth doing. “I really did enjoy the class,” says Iris Williams ’22. “The subject matter is relevant to my engineering aspirations. The process was a little slow at first, but it was worth learning about it in depth.”

Design Thinking
Design Thinking students work in groups on solving a problem during the fall 2018 class.

Perhaps the most defining part of design thinking is that it is an iterative process. You talk to someone and empathize with them. You define the problem. You come up with ideas for solving that problem. You build a prototype of that solution and then you test it. But the process doesn’t end there and it’s not linear. Sometimes you think you’ve defined the problem, but during the testing phase, you discover some un-thought-of aspect that changes the way you think. Sometimes you test something and it doesn’t work, so you have to come up with new ideas and develop a new prototype. Sometimes your idea works great, but during the process, you discover a different problem you want to solve.

To be sure, design thinking has its skeptics. Salvatore was a skeptic until she took the Stanford course. Penfield notes that critics sometimes say that “design thinking doesn’t involve a moment of critique,” but he argues that critique is an inherent part of the iterative process. “It’s important to know when, in the creative process, to apply that critique,” he says.

On the first day of class, the students were given a box of items: aluminum foil, tape, pipe cleaners, sticky notes, Play-doh, string, popsicle sticks, straws, colorful circular stickers and more. At first glance, such a box might seem like materials for summer camp, but the items were tools that the students used to prototype designs. On the day that we visited, students were using the materials to test their ideas for a better study space. Using the items in that box, they prototyped things as different as a calming spa space to a smartphone application. According to Hank Yochum, associate dean of academic affairs, “You could probably find a box similar to that in many offices at Google, and there are a lot of people over there making a lot of money using the tools we’re teaching our students.”

Design Thinking Quad
Design Thinking students have fun during an outdoor exercise in the Quad.

The faculty noted that a lot of people don’t think they’re creative. Design thinking, Leake says, is a framework that allows people who might not feel creative to come up with innovative ideas. “It’s not about a creative moment of inspiration,” says Penfield. “Anyone can use this process to work collaboratively and come up with innovative ideas and breakthroughs that they might not have come to otherwise. It’s a set of skills that is not often taught in a structured way.”

The class is pass/fail, and as a result, doesn’t have an impact on a student’s GPA, but that’s by design, says Lynn Rainville, dean of the College. “Solving problems is a process that by definition involves failure,” she says. “We don’t want our students to be afraid of that or to be concerned that failing to solve an assigned problem will have a negative impact on their grade. We want them to fail — and we want them to learn from those failures.” In fact, taking risks and learning from failures is one of the primary goals of the class.

Students in the class work in teams. Salvatore says the notion of teams — not just “groups” — is important. For students, group work can be an annoyance, but Salvatore explained that the projects they were doing could not be actually done by an individual — she used the example of raising a barn: even if she wanted to, she could not build a barn by herself, just like the projects the students were working on in the class. Unlike a group, a team is a collection of people focused on a common goal, and everyone on the team has a sense of identity and a shared mission. During the course, students worked in several teams, and some of the students acknowledged that they didn’t always get along with other team members, but that, too, is a learning experience in itself.

Learning to work with others wasn’t the only skill the students learned. Because the first step in the process is empathy, students had to learn to talk to someone and really listen to what they had to say. While the students were practicing empathy, they were also learning interviewing and listening skills — and that’s before they’d solved any problems at all. CORE 110 gives students an opportunity to learn these skills so that they’ll be prepared to go into the workforce and collaborate with people of various skills and knowledge. And they’ll be able to work effectively with those people and come up with truly innovative solutions.

To see Sweet Briar’s first Design Thinking class in action, watch the video below:


Did You Know?

The term “design thinking” was probably coined in the 1960s. IDEO, perhaps the company best known for developing consumer products using design thinking tools, was founded in 1991. Stanford University launched the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, better known as the d.school, in 2005.


How design thinking has led to innovative solutions

It’s a question that gets asked regularly over kitchen tables when kids are doing their homework: “Why do I have to learn this?” And it was one obstacle the faculty of CORE 110 had to overcome with their own students, so one of the first things the students did was to look at some case studies about how design thinking had led to innovative solutions.

One such case study was the story of Doug Dietz, a designer for high-tech medical imaging systems for GE Healthcare. Dietz noticed that though his machines were technological marvels, the kids were so scared to get in them that they had to be sedated. Dietz realized there had to be a better way. He took Stanford’s course on design thinking and learned skills that helped him understand a human-centered approach to design.

He had to find a way to make the machines less scary. One of the prototypes he designed turned the MRI machine into a pirate ship and after the voyage was complete, there was a small bit of “treasure” waiting for the child in a pirate chest. Children were now less scared and the hospital had less need for anesthesiologists. Everybody won.

Some critics of design thinking argue that anyone could come up with these simple-seeming solutions; it doesn’t require a complicated process. But the truth is, before Dietz, nobody had come up with a solution to this particular problem. Simple doesn’t always mean easy or obvious.


This article first appeared in the Fall 2018 Alumnae Magazine.