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Dartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of EngineeringDartmouth Engineer - The Magazine of Thayer School of Engineering

Outreach: Teaching Human-Centered Design in Ghana

Hilary Johnson in Ghana.
Hilary Johnson ’15 leads a design workshop in Ghana. Photograph courtesy of Hilary Johnson.

Hilary Johnson ’15 and Gurkaran Singh ’15 found a new application for critical thinking and problem-solving skills: promoting peace.

Johnson, an engineering graduate who is now a design fellow at Thayer, and Singh, who majored in economics modified with engineering and minored in human-centered design, taught human-centered design to high school girls in Accra, Ghana. “Girls around the world experience violence because of not being able to educate themselves and because of early marriage. Educating and empowering these young women leads to peaceful and sustainable communities,” says Johnson.

The project was spearheaded by Regina Agyare, a Ghanaian who participated in the 2014 Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) program at Dartmouth, where she learned human-centered design from Professor Peter Robbie ’79. After YALI, Agyare sought Dartmouth students to teach in the Tech Needs Girls mentoring program she started.

Enter Johnson and Singh, both of whom had built strong foundations in human-centered design through ENGS 12: Design Thinking and ENGS 75: Product Design. Spending three weeks in Accra, they ran after-school workshops that immersed 32 girls in empathizing with users, identifying problems, mapping resources, and prototyping.

“Our task was to help the girls unlearn the notion that asking questions is bad and unlock the creative confidence that they already had,” says Singh. “We cheered on their failures, just as much as their successes.”
The experiential learning clicked for their students. “They were ingenious and clever with milk cartons, with scraps fabric that they’d gotten from a seamstress down the street, with pieces of twine that they had found. They built prototypes addressing needs,” says Johnson. “That was a really magical moment for us and for the girls because they realized that they were actually rich with resources all around them that they could use to create real change.”

Johnson and Singh also taught interviewing skills, introducing the girls to the “five whys” technique: asking “why” five times to elicit a series of answers that point to the core of a situation. The following day a student named Patience described using the five whys to discover that a girl she met on the street was an orphan who needed help. “Patience talked to her pastor and found the girl a space at the orphanage—found her a place to live, an education, and regular food. And it was just because she simply decided to stop and ask a random girl on the side of the road ‘why?’ ” says Johnson. “That was a stunning moment for us—realizing how compassionate and easy it is to create change when you’re willing to step outside of your box and comfort zone.”


Categories: The Great Hall, Outreach

Tags: design, faculty, humanitarian service, international, leadership, projects, STEM, students

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