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

The Power of Design Thinking

Thayer’s growing design offerings ground engineers—and other students—in what matters most.

By Kristen Senz
Photography by John Sherman

It was bold, the kind of thing Devyn Greenberg ’17 never would have considered doing before. During her senior year at Dartmouth, as a government and Asian and Middle Eastern studies major, Greenberg decided to apply design thinking to her own life.

After a design-related internship and Thayer School’s ENGS 12: Design Thinking course introduced her to the design field, she reworked her entire senior-year curriculum to accommodate a minor in Human-Centered Design, a unique program in the Ivy League. “It paid enormous dividends,” she says, “and I had an amazing year, because I discovered all these things that I didn’t know I could do.”

Greenberg is one of a growing number of Dartmouth students and alums who describe ENGS 12 as “life-changing.” While providing a framework and shared language for creative problem-solving, students say, the course builds creative confidence, imparts strategies for giving and receiving constructive criticism, and demonstrates the value of failure as a precursor to innovation.

To meet increasing demand for design education, Thayer School is expanding its design offerings dramatically. New sections of ENGS 12 have been added, new instructors hired, and the multidisciplinary Human-Centered Design Minor is increasingly in demand. A two-term “Senior Design Challenge” course was piloted last year as a new kind of academic culminating experience for all Dartmouth students, regardless of major.

Looking further ahead, Thayer will add more tenure-track design faculty and open several more design spaces. Those spaces will be in the new building (see page 8) that engineering will share with computer science, the Digital Arts, Leadership & Innovation (DALI) Lab, and the Magnuson Family Center for Entrepreneurship—key ingredients for “transforming the west end of campus into a hotbed of innovation, entrepreneurship, business, and design,” as President Phil Hanlon ’77 recently put it in announcing the launch of Dartmouth’s capital campaign, The Call to Lead.

Professor Peter Robbie ’69, who has been teaching design at Thayer since the 1990s, says the expansion of design at Thayer, and growing interest in design thinking in academia and industry more broadly, has unlocked the creative potential of people across a wide range of disciplines and sectors.

Brainstorming, improvisation, and collaboration are among the design thinking toolkit.

“I think it has opened the door to a lot more people to become creative problem-solvers,” Robbie says. “We have myths about creativity being just for some tiny percent of the population. If you’re talking about major works of art, like writing Moby Dick, that’s probably true. But if you’re talking about creative problem-solving, I think smart people can become creative problem-solvers. Creative problem-solving is a practice and a skillset that many people can do.”

Originally used to develop innovative consumer products, including the first computer mouse, design thinking is increasingly applied to complex issues in education, healthcare, civic services, and other kinds of “wicked problems” that require expertise from diverse fields.

In practicing the design thinking process, students in ENGS 12 investigate people’s needs, frame specific problems, and craft solutions through brainstorming, prototyping, and iteration. “They draw on the ethnographic methods of anthropology, the hands-on mentality of engineering, and the entrepreneurial mindset of the business world,” says Robbie.

Student teams present solutions to real-life problems, both on campus and off, but the solutions are not the main focus, Robbie explains. Instead, ENGS 12 aims to equip students with tools they can use to effectively and creatively approach challenges they encounter in their professional and personal lives. “I think having that goal, in design courses at Thayer, differentiates the field from more traditional courses,” says Robbie. “Traditionally, engineering focuses on innovations—the ideas, the products. In this course, we’re focused on the people. We’re trying to grow innovators.”

Students who complete the Human-Centered Design minor gain an even deeper understanding of how to maintain the focus on people throughout the design process. In addition to completing ENGS 12 and ENGS 21: Introduction to Engineering, Human-Centered Design minors take two social science courses and two design electives, ranging from engineering courses in product design to computer science courses in digital arts, to studio art courses in architecture. “The reason for including a focus on social sciences,” says Robbie, “is that if you’re designing for humans, you should know how humans think and behave. Human-centered design is technical design informed by social science.”

For students of design thinking, a primary take-away is increased confidence in their own ability to think and act creatively. Through the design process, they experience failure as a precursor to success, which empowers them to take intellectual risks and quiet their inner self-critics, says Eugene Korsunskiy, a new design instructor at Thayer School. “Students describe this mental capacity in different ways,” says Korsunskiy, “but just about every student, after taking a class like this, reports an increased belief in their own powers to be innovative.”

Recently, several Dartmouth students have employed this newfound confidence to craft their own design-related majors. Mary Katherine Milway ’20 hopes to major in “sustainability design.” Jessie Colin ’18 received approval from the College for a special major in Human-Centered Design, after working on her proposal for two years. “I never studied abroad because I wanted to make this happen, and this became my own narrative at Dartmouth, as something I contributed to the community,” says Colin, who, after graduation, will join IBM as a design researcher.

Since Colin’s proposal was approved, more than 20 students—all of them women—have reached out to her for advice about special design majors. “I don’t know why it’s just women,” says Colin. “I think it’s a way of getting into the field of engineering through a more empathetic and artistic lens.”  

On average, about 75 percent of students in Thayer’s design thinking classes are women, according to Robbie, who adds that the department’s focus on design might have contributed to Thayer’s milestone of issuing more engineering degrees to women than men in 2016.

“There has been some research around women in general being more interested in engineering within a context, but why that’s interesting to women is a much broader sociological question,” says Teagan Daly ’13 Th’13, who teaches design Stanford University and has studied cultural issues within engineering. “With design thinking, there’s been an interesting backlash, like we shouldn’t pink-wash engineering, and we shouldn’t soften what’s hard—‘hard’ meaning rigorous and quantifiable—to attract more women.”

Daly says she views Thayer School as the perfect place for the build-out of a design program, because Thayer students already learn engineering in the context of Dartmouth’s liberal arts education. “If all engineers were trained to think a little bit more about the people who use the system, even if it’s just the safety of the user, my impression is the built world could really benefit from that kind of thinking and problem-solving,” she says.

Design Challenge

With the goal of creating a campus-wide design initiative, Professor Robbie has been working to “extend design at Thayer into design at Dartmouth” for years, he says. In keeping with design thinking’s emphasis on meeting the needs of users, Robbie asked his ENGS 12 students how they would structure such an initiative.

Ashley Manning ’17 was one of those students. Manning had taken ENGS 12 to complement her geography major, viewing design thinking as a method for taking action on complex problems she had studied. For the final project in ENGS 12 that term, Robbie challenged Manning and her team to envision a campus-wide design program at Dartmouth, inspired by and modeled on the Stanford d.school. Officially called the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, the d.school brings together faculty and students from across the university to teach and learn design methodologies, preparing them to tackle problems in their own fields.

Manning and her teammates interviewed dozens of Dartmouth students and other stakeholders. Eventually, they reframed the question. “We started thinking more about how to foster a culture of creative, interdisciplinary collaboration at Dartmouth. That led us to look at experiential learning initiatives that are cross-campus, and bright spots that make learning really engaging and meaningful for students,” Manning explains. “ENGS 12 came up a lot, as well as some other factors.”

The team’s solution was the Senior Design Challenge, in which multidisciplinary teams of seniors would tackle real-world problems through partnerships with businesses and nonprofits.
Manning worked with Robbie to propose the idea to the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL), which awarded a grant to support the pilot. Manning stayed at Dartmouth for an extra year to develop the course with Robbie and Korsunskiy, who was brought in to teach it. Initially, Robbie and Korsunskiy planned to accept 10 students into the Senior Design Challenge, but when 40 students applied, they increased the enrollment cap to 20.

“In our group of 20 students, we have 16 different majors represented, including anthropology, computer science, and history, so it’s a truly interdisciplinary cohort,” says Korsunskiy. “The students are divided into five teams, each team working on a unique challenge that was scoped in partnership with client organizations ranging from Burton Snowboards to a local family shelter. The projects range from mobile healthcare apps to architectural technology.”

The students aren’t the only ones being challenged. “At this point the students are definitely bigger experts on their topics than I am,” says Korsunskiy. “It’s a really different way to teach: I have to be the process coach, not the keeper of knowledge. The knowledge is what the students are creating.”

The Senior Design Challenge will be offered again in 2018–19, and students are already inquiring about applying. Korsunskiy and Robbie say they hope the course will become a new kind of culminating experience for seniors to build their design skills, work in interdisciplinary teams, and have impact beyond the classroom.

Design for Life

According to Robbie and Korsunskiy, the growth of the design program at Thayer mirrors a national conversation about design thinking methodologies and their role in liberal arts education. Korsunskiy recently cofounded a national symposium of educators from dozens of schools, including Harvard and Stanford, called the Future of Design in Higher Ed, in which faculty and administrators are coming together to share best practices and advance the field.

Eugene Korsunskiy, Ashley Manning, and Profesor Peter Robbie
Left to right, design instructor Eugene Korsunskiy, Senior Design Challenge co-creator Ashley Manning, and Professor Peter Robbie are expanding Thayer's design offerings.

With a growing emphasis on experiential learning and collaboration at Dartmouth, college administrators and others are paying attention to the strong demand for design education among students, as well as the skills and lessons students report learning in ENGS 12.

“To put it bluntly, ENGS 12 is what college learning should be,” says Joshua Kim, associate director of DCAL, who delights in seeing students’ final presentations about improving aspects of Dartmouth life. “What the science of learning tells us is that: a) learning is hard, and b) authentic learning requires active engagement. It is abundantly clear from the work of the ENGS 12 students that they work enormously hard. It is also clear that the teams of students are massively engaged in their projects. ENGS 12 takes active and experiential learning to its logical end-point.”

Industry has taken notice, too. “Traditionally in business settings there has been a huge work practice and cultural divide between designers (the creatives) and executives (the suits),” says Robbie. “With recent design thinking initiatives at IBM, GE, Ford, and elsewhere, we see companies creating opportunities for everyone in their organization to understand and practice design, leveraging shared language and frameworks to create a more innovative corporate culture.”

Increasingly, traditional business consulting companies and large firms are making substantial investments to acquire design consultancies or set up in-house design teams.
Devyn Greenberg, the alumna who rearranged her schedule to minor in Human-Centered Design, recently joined Bain and Company’s new Advanced Digital and Product Team (ADAPT) design studio, deferring admission to the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and access to the d.school) to do so. “In job interviews, I found myself talking about the minor a lot, and I believe it really was an asset,” she says.

For Greenberg, as with many students, design thinking is a creative means to making a tangible difference.

“I think the optimism of design—this idea that the only way to make a positive impact in the world is to believe that you can—is really important,” she says. “That mindset is something that I developed while doing the Human-Centered Design minor, and it’s something that I’ll carry with me throughout my life.”


In Their Own Words

Alumni reflect on how design changed their thinking.

ENGS 12: Design Thinking

Sarah Peck ’14    
Major: French and Italian
Minor: Psychology    
Currently: Associate Manager Global Marketing, Laura Mercier Cosmetics
ENGS 12 helped me understand that human behavior is truly at the core of everything, and that good design is not only physical, but also experiential. Whether it was learning the art of observation, understanding the nuance and complexity of implementing a new initiative, or even using constraints to unlock creativity, these fundamental principles gave me a framework and way of thinking that I carry with me to this day in both my personal and professional life.

Sara Remsen ’12    
Major: Biology
Minor: Digital Arts
Currently: UX Technical Fellow, Advanced Development Group, PTC    
ENGS 12 taught me that I could build a career on my creativity, empathy, and problem-solving skills as a leader in human-centered design. After working at a tech startup following graduation, I was inspired by my ENGS 12 course to pursue a master’s in Integrated Design and Management at MIT. I continued to combine my experience in human-centered design with my technology skills, and in 2016, I founded a company, Waypoint, to bring technology to industrial workers through augmented reality. Waypoint was acquired by PTC in March 2018.

Sarah Waltcher ’16    
Major: English    
Currently: Rhodes Scholar, English literature, Oxford University    
ENGS 12 reframed my conceptions of creativity and innovation. I remember feeling shocked that even to me, an English major, much of our work in the course felt familiar. The course was about storytelling: mapping human journeys, identifying conflicts, and imagining solutions from multiple perspectives—the same pathways traveled when I engage with literature. Last year I taught sixth-grade science and engaged my students with the design cycle through a unit on inventions. For kids who do not see themselves as creative or innovative, having a structure for their inventing—investigate, plan, create, evaluate—gave them the confidence to trust and to try. Before ENGS 12, I was one of those kids, too!

Dan Harburg Th’10 Th’13    
Thayer Studies: MS, PhD, PhD Innovation Program   
Currently: Entrepreneur and Investor, Anterra Capital   
I have carried important lessons from ENGS 12 into every startup with which I’ve worked. I learned how to structure brainstorming sessions, interview people to uncover real needs, and the importance of getting early prototypes in front of customers. And ever since ENGS 12 I’ve kept a “bug list” by my side at all times to jot problems I see in everyday life that might be solved through better design.

Human-Centered Design Minor

Matt Rossi ’16 Th’17    
Major: Engineering Sciences, BE Concentration: Mechanical Design
Minor: Human-Centered Design    
Currently: Content Marketing Manager, Ekso Bionics   
The human-centered design minor introduced me to concepts crucial for every creative professional to understand: the importance of collaboration, asking questions, and experiencing problems first-hand to understand end users. Whether you’re designing a flyer to explain the benefits of an exoskeleton for spinal cord injury rehabilitation, producing videos to teach construction workers how to set up robotic arms to lift heavy power tools, or even building that device yourself, you must understand your users’ pains, limitations, and desires. The minor also taught me that simply thinking can get you only so far. Just make it, show it to someone, and get feedback as early and often as possible.

Robert Halvorsen ’17 Th’17
Major: Engineering Sciences        
Currently: Thayer Design Fellow    
I loved taking the psychology and art courses for the minor that I would not have found otherwise. The minor helped me to become a better engineer and to notice things that I never would have noticed before about the world around me.

Shreya Indukuri ’16    
Major: Cognitive Science
Minors: Human-Centered Design; Digital Arts
Currently: User Experience Designer at Nutanix    
I discovered product design as a possible career path my freshman year after taking Professor Robbie’s Design Thinking class. Something about design thinking clicked. It is a fun, exciting, and collaborative approach to problem solving. I spent the following three years honing my design skills by pursuing the Human-Centered Design minor and working as a designer at the DALI Lab. The minor taught me how to think about people and design through an interdisciplinary set of courses.

Tyler Rivera

Tyler Rivera ’16    
Major: Geography
Minors: Human-Centered Design, Environmental Studies
Currently: Development Assistant, World Monuments Fund    
The Human-Centered Design minor changed the course of my life. The wealth of hands-on, technical experience I gained through my engineering courses alongside the observational and qualitative skills I honed through anthropology and psychology coursework remain founts I draw on in my professional and personal life. Whether I am deconstructing a logic model at work or highlighting overlooked resource gaps at a not-for-profit I volunteer with, I always strive to employ a human-centered approach that emphasizes iterative, holistic consideration of stakeholder needs.

—Kristen Senz is a writer at Dartmouth Engineer.

Categories: Features

Tags: curriculum, design, faculty, students

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