Introducing Design Thinking into Teaching

By Derrick E. Rancourt, Professor in the Department of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, University of Calgary & University of Calgary Teaching Scholar

I am always changing my courses, introducing new elements and new ways of teaching. Although I adhere to the Japanese principle of Kaizen (constant improvement), only recently have I come to understand that much of what I am doing is using the principles of design thinking. I teach in Biomedical Engineering, a multidisciplinary program involving five UofC Faculties. We often struggle with the problem of having different vocabularies[1]. Recently, for example, a colleague asked a student: “What’s the difference between a scientist and an engineer?” Not knowing the answer, my colleague said: “Scientists discover, engineers design”. At the core this statement sounded correct, but I started thinking: “Hey wait a minute, I design; I design experiments and courses. Maybe I need to learn more about design.”

A fan of professional development education, I recently read Bill Burnett and Dave Evans’ Designing Your Life, which is based upon the most popular course at Stanford University. Part of the Stanford’s, these guys introduce the idea of applying design thinking to your career and life. From this book I learned that design is an iterative process:

Empathy. Understand the situation and emotion of the customer, observe behaviors and engage.

Define. Form a customer point of view; synthesize your research: identify insights; define principles.

Ideate. Translate problems into potential solutions. Be creative, save criticism until all ideas are tabled.

Prototype. Building cheaply and quickly to help shape ideas that you and customers can interact with.

Test. Look for feedback by putting the prototype into customer’s hearts; Let them share the experience.

Repeat. No design is correct the first time. We must return to an earlier stage iteratively to get it right.

As a scientist, I am somewhat familiar with using design in experiments. However, I mostly restrict this activity to repeating failed experiments by altering variables. Similarly, I experiment in my teaching by introducing new material, new approaches, and new assignments. However, Stanford’s has also introduced six tenets to design, which causes me to think differently about aspects of my teaching.

Human Centered. The design process must respond to user needs and feedback. I routinely ask students to evaluate my courses independent of the USRI system (which I find uninformative). I invite students to brainstorm with the TA on how to make the course better. I also have begun to ask students to communicate their expectations at the beginning of the course. This can be difficult, when students don’t know what’s in front of them. This year, in my Biotechnology Business & Profession course, one of the braver students in the class indicated that he wanted to know more about Entrepreneurship. As a result, I have become mindful of introducing entrepreneurship elements into the class. I also spend a lot of time answering his entrepreneurship questions after class. Although I’ve previously put students straight to work on day one, I’m thinking about giving them a better understanding of what’s in store and presenting a strawman (i.e. prototype) that they can beat up and repair. Of course, we cannot make radical changes, but new ideas might come forward, which have the potential to make the course better.

Show Don’t Tell: Expressing ideas in a non-verbal way, makes ideas more compelling, it helps us see problems and opportunities that discussion may not reveal. In group projects, I like students to present their ideas without using PowerPoint[2]. This leads to creative presentations such as short plays, or AV productions. This year, I am also using story-boarding as a graphic way to create scenarios that allow other students to see and experience each other’s work.

Culture of Prototyping: Flexibility in product development allows changes on the fly, incorporating lessons into new ideas as higher resolution models are generated. Two important mantras in design thinking are fail fast, and fail forward. Quick experiences, can help students to decide whether to move forward or revise prototypes. As a final assignment in my biotech business & profession course, students evaluate a mid-cap biotech company from an R&D, IP, Market and Finance perspective. I’ve learned that giving students the opportunity to share and critique works-in-progress at different stages is an effective way to motivate them. Through this form of prototype testing, students may fail early, and often but in the end, develop a better product. They also fail forward meaning they learn from their failures.

Radical Collaboration: Through sharing, design can harness the power of bringing different type of thinkers together. In addition to sharing their prototypes with their peers, I am encouraging students to seek the advice of others including professors and working professionals. This approach is like another fast prototype test that I introduce students to: the informational interview[3]. Although students use this tool in their career mapping assignment, it is also an effective networked problem-solving strategy.

Mindful of Process. Discipline alleviates the anxiety associated with an open, freewheeling process, yet leads design in interesting places. Because their final assignment is a big undertaking, worth a large part of their final grade, I help ease anxiety by scheduling in class sharing sessions, where students discuss the R&D, IP, Market, and Finance aspects of their companies. While these sessions are currently only oral discussions, I am also contemplating having students also turn in short progress reports for each section, which can be peer evaluated.

Bias towards Action. Getting out and engaging others is a way to get unstuck, to inspire new thinking, and to come to agreement. Knowing how powerful informational interviews/networked problem solving is, I am also considering making this a requirement of their final assignment. Why not seek some advice from a seasoned professional in an area where the student is stuck or wants to refine an argument? Since they experience informational interviewing in their career mapping assignment, why not learn to put it into research practice by incorporating it into their knowledge synthesis?

While design thinking is automatically connected to professions such as engineering and architecture, it can be an important skill in other disciplines. For example, I believe that design thinking should be used more in research. Many scientists are struggling with knowledge translation, government’s expectation that the products of research should be put to work through commercialization and/or changing practice, and not just be archived in journals. Instead of sitting in our ivory towers individually ideating about research areas, we should be using radical collaboration and engaging end users early in the process, not just when we are submitting our finished products (i.e. grants, publications, disclosures, etc.) to reviewers. What I am learning is that we all need to be more focused on design thinking in our research and in our lives. An upcoming book I plan to read is Designing Your Retirement. I bet they are going to suggest that I start building and testing prototypes for this stage now.

[1] professional-development/ interdisciplinary-thesis-leveraging-exotic-other



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