DIVE: Bringing Design Thinking to Vanderbilt Undergraduates
by Marianna Sharp, CFT Communications Intern
Beginning in the 2017-2018 school year, students will have the opportunity to participate in Design as an Immersive Vanderbilt Experience (DIVE). The program will teach students human-centered design skills, which the students will use to solve problems at Vanderbilt and in the larger Nashville community in a year-long immersive project.
DIVE is part of the larger Immersion Vanderbilt initiative, which calls for all undergraduate students to pursue creative, independent projects outside the classroom. Many Vanderbilt students already have immersive experiences at Vanderbilt, such as Senior Design at the School of Engineering, the Human & Organizational Development (HOD) internship at Peabody College, or undergraduate research in the College of Arts & Science and elsewhere. DIVE is meant to provide another opportunity for immersion at Vanderbilt, and its interdisciplinary nature makes it something special.
According to Lori Troxel, director of the DIVE program and Associate Professor of the Practice of Civil and Environmental Engineering, there is a common misconception that programs centered on design thinking are just for engineers. However, employers in many fields are looking to hire college graduates with knowledge of the principles of human-centered design and the ability to apply them to creatively solve problems. The goal of DIVE is to provide students with an opportunity to grow both academically and creatively, as well as gain real-world problem solving and project development skills.
What is human-centered design?
Human-centered design is an approach to creative problem solving useful in a wide variety of contexts. As articulated at Stanford University’s d.school (“design school”) and elsewhere, human-centered design consists of five steps: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test.
With the first step, Empathize, designers work to truly understand the situation of those for whom they are creating solutions, and to incorporate that understanding into their thought processes throughout the project. Next, they must define the problem, taking what they have learned in the first step to form a specific question to address. The final steps involve exploring a wide variety of ideas, testing multiple options, and using the information gained from each test to modify and refine the overall plan.,
“Human-centered design really focuses on the idea that the first solution is not the best solution,” said Troxel. “[This process] will give creative confidence to students…they will be able to tackle open-ended problems.” In class assignments, students are often given fairly narrow parameters and expected to come up with a single “right answer.” Immersive design projects require a higher level of creative thinking, something that, as Troxel said, “is valued no matter what major you’re in—it’s not just an art thing or a creative writing thing.”
The human-centered design process also teaches students how to learn from failure. Fear of failure is a widespread problem, especially for high-achieving students. However, the repetition of the last three steps—Ideate, Prototype and Test—allows students to step outside their comfort zone and try out what might not be the most obvious or easiest solution. If a test shows that a proposed solution is not viable, the student has not failed in their project, but rather has gathered information about what does not work and why, which can be applied to further iterations of their plan.
What will the program look like?
The first component of the program will be a one-credit course on design thinking, in which students are introduced to human-centered design, learning to apply the process to small problems. They will also hear about the kinds of projects DIVE will address, in order to decide if the immersive experience is something they want to pursue. This introductory course will be open to all undergraduates, with potential enrollment in the hundreds.
Some of the students who complete the introductory course will continue to the immersive portion of DIVE. These students will take an advanced course in design thinking and work in teams to apply human-centered design to real problems over two semesters. Initially, there will be four available areas of focus: the Vanderbilt medical center, on-campus groups (including student organizations), nonprofits in the Nashville community, and the Metro Nashville government. At the medical center, students might focus on improving the patient experience in a specific area, while an on-campus group could work on increasing student involvement in organizations such as student government. In the wider community, students could work with nonprofits on any of a number of issues such as outreach efficiency or increasing awareness. The Metro government area of focus will offer opportunities for students with a wide variety of interests, ranging from public health, to transit, to affordable housing.
Students will rank the areas of focus according to which they are most interested in, and these rankings will be used to form project teams. Each team will be made up of students from a variety of different majors, something not always found in classroom projects. Learning to work in interdisciplinary groups is an important skill for students’ future careers, and can help to expose them to a wider variety of problem-solving methods.
“The program is bringing design thinking to the whole campus,” said Troxel. “Learning to solve problems in a real-world situation is much more valuable than learning about it in a class… It’s been shown that people who learn human-centered design and practice it have more empathy, they’re more interested in solving society’s problems, global problems, sustainability issues.”
Derek Bruff, the director of the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching, has been involved in the design of the new DIVE program. “Good design can enhance how we interact with the world and with each other,” Bruff said. “I’m excited to bring design thinking to the Vanderbilt curriculum through DIVE, and to help build an immersive experience for students that cuts across disciplines and majors.” Bruff recommends the podcast 99% Invisible for anyone interested in learning more design thinking.
DIVE will launch with a pilot in the fall of 2017, with an expanded program slated for Fall 2018. More information on how DIVE will fit with existing major and liberal arts requirements will become available closer to the launch of the program.