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An Education Design Expert Flips the Script

Jul 05, 2024   |   Dartmouth Admissions

Dartmouth Engineering professor Rafe Steinhauer traces his interest in education back to the 9th grade, when he switched from a Montessori school, which focuses on hands-on learning and real-world projects, to a traditional public high school. "I'd had this rich, holistic approach to education and I thought, 'Why did my daily schedule and school experience just change so much?'" Today, he combines his expertise in education and engineering to teach design thinking, a methodology that takes a human-centered approach to problem solving.

Rafe Steinhauer, assistant professor of engineering, inside a classroom at the Class of 1982 Engineering and Computer Science Center (Photo by Don Hamerman)

When Professor Steinhauer first learned design thinking in graduate school, it resonated with him for a few reasons. "For one, it nicely explained everything that went wrong with the first startup that I was involved in." (He had been an entrepreneur in his early twenties.) "It also taught me that approaching a problem like a designer is an effective way to break down a complex matter. Design thinking is project-based, so it also resonated with me as an effective pedagogical vehicle."

In his design thinking courses, Steinhauer trains students to apply design mindsets like creativity and empathy to complex challenges. "Empathy is an important design skillset," he explains. "What tools can we use to understand the perspectives of various stakeholders in a problem?" Some students show up on the first day believing that they are inherently uncreative, but Steinhauer tries to dispel such preconceived notions. "If you allow yourself to come up with different ideas, some good and some bad, and then test the best ideas, you can replicate creativity," he says. His teaching places a premium on collaboration, too. "In my classes, effective teamwork is an explicit learning objective."

Steinhauer starts most academic quarters by taking a campus walk with each of his students to discuss their goals. "One of my core values of education is that the broader learning about how to be a happy person and a good citizen is more important than any disciplinary expertise," he says. He also practices what he calls an "open doors for life" policy. Each year, he sends an email to his former students to invite them to share their post-Dartmouth paths and sign up for a chat. "If they're at a juncture where they feel I can be helpful, I want them to know I'm there."

For Steinhauer, design thinking encapsulates a key goal of Dartmouth's liberal arts curriculum: to teach students several ways of thinking and apply those to improving society. In further support of that goal, he's designing a new course at the intersection of design thinking and education. Students in the course will work with real stakeholders at local schools to co-design a solution that addresses an issue at the heart of the education system. "Dartmouth is a place of storied traditions, and I have also found it to be a supportive place for pedagogical creativity."

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