Engaging Through Design Thinking: Catalyzing Integration, Iteration, Innovation, and Implementation

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By Danielle Lake, Marc Lehman & Linda Chamberlain, | In response to the challenges presented by traditional university and classroom structures, this article offers a set of hybrid pedagogical strategies for transdisciplinary, collaborative, community-based learning that responds to a “real-world need” in “real time.” These strategies emerge from “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs,” a project-based general education undergraduate course that harnesses best practices from research on design thinking, transdisciplinarity, and sustainability science. Seeking to inspire empathetic listening and creative confidence (Kelley & Kelley, 2013), the course begins in partnership and in place, engaging students in collaborative participatory action. Emphasizing integration, iteration, ideation, and implementation, the course encourages students to innovate in order to address a local wicked problem. This article is particularly relevant for educators and administrators hoping to catalyze innovative co-participatory engagement projects that move beyond traditional university structures and thus engage more directly with the needs of the community.

Author Note

Danielle Lake, Liberal Studies Department and Accelerated Leadership Program, Grand Valley State University; Marc Lehman, Grand Valley State University; Linda Chamberlain, Frederick Meijer Honors College, Grand Valley State University.

Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Danielle Lake, Assistant Professor, Liberal Studies Department, Grand Valley State University, 318 Lake Ontario Hall, 1 Campus Drive, Allendale, MI 49401. Phone: (616) 331-8038. Email: lakeda@gvsu.edu

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Mutually reciprocal community engagement efforts that yield sustained impact are persistently challenged by the dominant culture, structures, and processes of higher education, including narrow academic timelines, the framework under which abstract and theory-driven knowledge is constructed and valued, commitment to narrowly framed expertise, and a revolving student body. Given that complex social problems require collaborative and flexible problem-solving skills and sustained commitment across political, social, and institutional differences, the current structures and practices within higher education are particularly troubling (Brundiers, Wiek, & Kay, 2013; Fischer, 2000; Hiedanpää, Jokinen, & Jokinen, 2012; Wynne, 2007). In response to these challenges, this article highlights a set of high-impact,[1] hybrid pedagogical techniques that empower transdisciplinary collaboration around significant community issues, counteract and ameliorate such challenges, and foster change-agent skills. By transdisciplinary work we refer to “the cooperation of academics, stakeholders, and practitioners to solve complex societal or environmental problems of common interest” (Repko, Szostak, & Buchberger, 2014, p. 36). Transdisciplinary courses incorporate a wide array of knowledges in order to “frame questions, explore options, and develop and then apply solutions to challenges” (Ramaley, 2014, n.p.). Such courses inherently require collaboration—that is, an intentional effort to learn together across diverse positionalities and to honestly assess the risks and benefits of the work.

We begin by situating the philosophical and practical commitments behind “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs,” a project-based general education undergraduate course harnessing best practices from research on design thinking, transdisciplinarity, and sustainability science. As an example of these commitments, this article is co-authored by the course designers and instructors as well as a graduate and teaching apprentice of the course. It is thus informed by our own practical and theoretical commitments to feminist pragmatist philosophy (Whipps & Lake, 2016), collaborative engagement, innovation, and design thinking. In practice, this means the class encourages students to engage with, in, and through diverse communities around real-world challenges. We then provide a brief overview of the course’s essential dimensions, offering a set of hybrid pedagogical strategies designed to respond to the challenges noted earlier. These strategies have emerged from the praxis between—and integration of—community-based action project work (Miller & Archuleta, 2013), design thinking pedagogy (Fernaeus & Lundstrom, 2015; Miller, 2015; Morris & Warman, 2015), and a commitment to transdisciplinary, collaborative engagement (Post & Ward, 2016). We categorize our recommendations within four strategic dimensions: (1) integration (i.e., contextually connecting ideas and skills from diverse perspectives), (2) iteration (i.e., a cyclical process of revision), (3) ideation (i.e., collaborative brainstorming),[2] and (4) implementation (i.e., bringing ideas to fruition in and with community). We adhere to the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) definition of integration as efforts toward “connecting skills and knowledge from multiple sources and experiences … and utilizing diverse and even contradictory points of view” in context (Leskes, 2004). We conclude the article by recounting the challenges and benefits of this work from the students’, the community partners’, and the instructors’ perspectives, providing a consolidated set of recommendations for interested, university-bound change agents. As a case study, this article is particularly relevant to educators and administrators hoping to uncover a means for catalyzing innovative co-participatory engagement projects that move beyond the limitations of traditional university structures and deeply engage with the needs of surrounding communities.[3]

Course Overview

Theoretical Framing

A commitment to engage with, in, and through collaboration in order to address collective, complex problems is the philosophic catalyst for the “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs” course.[4] Activist and educational philosopher Grace Lee Boggs advocated for a revolutionary paradigm shift toward creative, courageous, dialogic educational activism (Boggs & Kurashige, 2012). The goal of such a shift is for students to not only study, but also iteratively enact and reflect upon collaborative participatory engagement strategies designed to address a “real-world need” in “real time.” Design thinking—as a collaborative problem-finding and action-oriented learning process—is the method by which engagement is enacted. While design thinking shares perspectives and practices with many other methodologies, within the context of higher education it is most often described as a process of experiential, project-specific learning designed to build skillsets, foster creativity, and initiate place-based change (Crouch & Pearce, 2012; Miller, 2015; Williams, Fam, & Lopes, 2017). A definition that has emerged from our own philosophic commitments also frames design thinking as an iterative problem-solving process that, most importantly, begins with empathy and extends into collaborative action (Brown, 2009; Fernaeus & Lundstrom, 2015; Gibson, 2006; Lake, Fernando, & Eardley, 2016; Miller, 2015; Morris & Warman, 2015). Figure 1 illustrates the particular process and visual guide that students in the course follow.

Figure 1. Visual design thinking guide.

The design thinking literature contains an array of similar valuable guides. In general, design thinking processes overlap with a wide range of other practices, processes, and systems of engagement, including soft systems thinking (Checkland 1999), participatory action research, the pragmatic method, experiential learning practices, deliberative dialogue and facilitation tools, and even care ethics work.

We argue that design thinking is incredibly useful as a pedagogy for and of engagement since it demands that instructors and students close the gap between the university and the community, encouraging virtues of collaboration, humility, courage, and tenacity. By expanding students’ epistemological framework, design thinking opens space for valuing nonacademic expertise and moves students from serving simply as consumers of information to engaging as producers of knowledge and public actors (Post, Ward, Longo, & Saltmarsh, 2016). According to this framework, then, design thinking is about radical reconstruction, critical discourse across differences, and developing the capacity to act under difficult and confusing circumstances, while also recognizing the likely limitations of those actions.

Course Description

With the previously described philosophic commitments in mind, the course requires students to collaborate with one another and community members to study and innovate around community-identified problems. Originally designed in the 2014-2015 academic year as part of an upper-division general education program, the course has subsequently been offered once every semester. As an interdisciplinary course designed to foster collaboration, integration, and problem solving among diverse majors, students from across the university are encouraged to enroll. The learning objectives include analyzing key concepts and theories in design thinking, developing a deeper understanding of collaboration—especially as it relates to empathy and innovation—and applying the process to real-world problems.

With a focus on the depth and breadth of particular issues and their social justice dimensions, as well as on reachable ecosystems and community partner readiness for such work, community projects in the course have thus far been structured around wicked problems impacting local communities (Rittel & Webber, 1973). For instance, students have examined challenges around food insecurity on and off campus (fall 2015), housing and homelessness in the local community (winter 2016), and the role of regional campuses in their surrounding communities (fall 2016 and winter 2017). Prior to the start of each semester, instructors choose a design challenge by reviewing current community-identified issues and course learning outcomes. Possible design challenges are then assessed according to a number of factors and scales, including whether collaborators can commit the time and resources needed to explore and potentially implement class innovations.

As the earlier figure highlights, students work in teams of four to six to define the problem, empathize with stakeholders, synthesize research and redefine the problem, ideate around possible solutions, refine ideas through prototyping, and eventually test their refined innovations. In an attempt to move beyond disciplinary silos and cross-semester divides, and leverage student innovations into future collaborative endeavors, students ultimately share their work through a public “innovation” symposium and an openly accessible publication of their project dossiers.

The course is supported by flexible project guidelines and timetables as well as consistent interaction with partners, collaborators, and local stakeholders. Course collaborators have included the directors of nonprofits and government agencies, and local stakeholders have included context, content, and process experts as well as interested community members. The course requires students to get out of the classroom (to observe and actively listen, map, and remap their understanding of situations, and to share their findings as they emerge) and invites community members into the classroom at key points in the semester in order to both honor their lived experiences and solicit their expert feedback.

Under the limits of a standard 15-week semester, students begin their work by uncovering and sharing their own values, disciplinary expertise, and skills through a personality assessment and workshop.[5] After identifying and leveraging their unique strengths in teams, students develop a team charter, documenting their individual and collective vision for the project, hoped-for outcomes, concerns, expectations, and group processes. After these initial efforts to better understand themselves and their team, students delve into the design thinking process, reaching out to the community and engaging in secondary research designed to generate a nuanced understanding of the specific project-based challenge. Students “download” and synthesize their insights every week in an effort to encourage iterative reflective action and to plan their next steps. In collaboration with the community, students’ initial innovations are continuously refined into a consolidated list of innovations and, ultimately, their final prototype. The prototype chosen by each team is tested in a “call-to-action” presentation staged for full participation from the university and community. The class harnesses a variety of support mechanisms and enlists the help of a wide range of experts from within the university and the broader community in order to facilitate these practices. Table 1 highlights elements of the course that have proven critical to its success, the tasks that most support these objectives (and when they occur in the semester), and what support mechanisms have been most critical for empowering students to meet these objectives.

Table 1

Core Course Components




Support Mechanisms

Learning Objectives

Self and Team Identity and Assets

Personality Assessment Workshop


Counseling and Career Center

Personality Instruments and Workshops

Identifying, aligning, and leveraging unique strengths for collaboration— reflected in team charters

Span Boundaries: Get out and Invite in

Community Outreach:







Ethnographic Interviews

Primary Collaborators

Community Members


Local Experts

Empathetic listening and critical observation

Contextualize issue “in place”

Visualize system complexity

Generate feedback loops

Enforce iteration

Download, Integrate, and Iterate

Team Integration and Collaborative Modeling


Deliberative Best Practices

Facilitation Tools

Affinity Mapping

Foster ability to wade into complexity

Constructively harness tension between perspectives

Strengthen dialogue and integration skills

Ideate and Create

Visualize and Prototype


Data Inquiry Lab

Art and Design

Local Design Practitioners

Practice generative thinking and creativity

Foster confidence and humility

Practice prototyping


Workshop Exploration: From Innovation to Implementation


Importance Difficulty Matrix

Offer Student Leadership Opportunities

Explore next step implementation and post-semester sustainability strategies

Wrestle with real-world constraints

Empower long-term student investment

The course sets out ambitious goals that the students may not always meet in the short-term. A critical reader may wonder what concrete changes such pedagogical commitments have yielded, and indeed tracking the place-based impact of student projects over time has proven challenging. In the year following the initial course symposium, however, we know the following happened:

  • Environmental studies students—with their instructor’s guidance—reviewed published portfolios, exploring how they might move these initial projects forward through their own course;
  • film and video students created three promotional videos for the campus food pantry through internship opportunities;
  • communication faculty developed a public relations campaign that led ultimately to the rebranding of the campus food pantry for more effective outreach;
  • a second project specific to food access for elderly residents in the area was implemented with process leadership provided by an alumna of this course;
  • alumni from the inaugural course presented at a regional Food Policy Council meeting;
  • sustainability students sought community partnerships and funding possibilities for the student food pantry;
  • the campus food pantry director, student manager, and two other course alumni presented on their collaborative efforts at a regional food justice workshop;
  • another former student completed an independent study mapping the network involved in the initial projects, presenting the findings at a campus-wide event;
  • food pantry resources are now included in the programming for all incoming freshmen; and,
  • efforts to vastly expand and link pantry services to local and county resources are now underway.

In addition to tracking the impact of the course on community partners and local stakeholders, a study designed to track its long-term impact on alumni is currently underway. This is notable since research on the long-term impact of such practices is still sparse (Finley & McNair, 2013).

Given the initial lessons learned through this approach, we next highlight the need for integration, iteration, ideation, and implementation within such courses, seeing each as critical for supporting effective collaborative engagement on “wicked” social challenges.

Key Support Strategies

In the following section, we emphasize four key dimensions of effective collaborative engagement and outline the most effective pedagogical strategies supporting such efforts. Based on our experience, these tools have either removed, reduced, or helped us work around barriers to catalyzing and sustaining “real-world” impact from within the current structures of the undergraduate classroom. These strategies are effective precisely because they encourage students to integrate their disparate insights, iterate in order to refine and enhance their initial efforts, ideate and thereby stretch beyond conventional thinking, and implement, ultimately offering opportunities to leverage their ideas into community impact. Thus, integration, iteration, ideation, and implementation, as core objectives of the course (and essential elements for collaboratively addressing complex shared problems), provide the infrastructural framework by which the strategies are outlined. First, however, we offer one important point of clarification: We recognize and deeply value the role context plays in such courses. Given the variable nature of course topics, projects, student backgrounds and interests, and community needs, these tools are adjusted each semester (i.e., we are not presenting fool-proof formulas in this article but context-sensitive, malleable strategies). Just as community-engaged courses tend to require significant flexibility of their students, so too do they require the same flexibility of their instructors.

Integration. Integration challenges commitments to narrowly framed expertise, requiring students to seek out complexity and encourage building “bridges that join together rather than erecting walls that divide” (Repko, 2012, p. 325). As a transactional method of growth, integration demands that we move beyond tolerating diversity to desiring it. This asks us to hold ourselves accountable to others’ ideas and their practices, requiring epistemic humility and creative confidence—that is, a belief that we can see our way through (Lake, 2015; 2015; Martin, 2007). While the literature makes clear the value of fostering integration, there remains a gap in how to best support faculty in motivating genuine integration in their classrooms (Vrchota, 2016). On this front, we have found design thinking and collaborative engagement practices to be incredibly effective for enacting integration, since they require students to explore opportunities for reducing traditional barriers and moving around boundaries.[6]

In the course, we catalyze consistent integration through weekly feedback loops: In general, students share their findings with a wide array of stakeholders each week (including their interdisciplinary team, the class and course instructors, collaborators, on- and off-campus experts, and the wider public), receive feedback, dialogue about the implications, and brainstorm next steps. These dialogues counter tendencies to narrowly frame issues, fostering the creation of holistic visual models and prompting prototype concepts for implementation (Pohl, van Kerkhoff, Hirsch Hadorn, & Bammer, 2008). To accomplish this, students study and enact deliberative best practices, active listening, interviewing, and observation techniques, in addition to conducting secondary research. They also engage in exercises and use tools designed to integrate insights into actionable innovations (e.g., facilitation tools, affinity mapping, and theming). For instance, prior to engaging with stakeholders, students iteratively modify a general template that requires them to articulate their goals, frame dialogue questions, summarize their findings, highlight important insights, and reflect upon next-step opportunities. Of the tools used, low-stakes personalized engagement opportunities and iterative stakeholder mapping have proven essential for creating conditions conducive to integration; these are detailed in the following section.

Low-stakes, personalized experiential learning. We guide students through in-class and in-their-life design activities that provide opportunities to practice empathetic listening, integration, ideation, and prototyping, as well as transitioning from one stage to another. Students’ first experience with the design thinking process takes the form of a personal design challenge (PDC), wherein students (and instructors) empathize with themselves, define a personal challenge or problem they wish to address through innovative solutions, collaboratively ideate intervention strategies, and then prototype and test their various innovations over the course of eight to 10 weeks. From creating a garden to learning a new instrument to connecting more deeply with loved ones, students apply the design thinking process to their own life, often for the first time. Students are required to reflect on the current status of their respective challenge in weekly blogs, wherein they document the stages of the design thinking process they have tried, the barriers they face, lessons learned, and how their experiences and insights relate to course readings. Students have rated this assignment as one of the most helpful in the course, describing it as critical to overcoming fear, embracing failure, getting creative, and engaging deeply with the design thinking process.[7] Student teams also lead in-class activities and dialogues that incorporate theories and tools from the weekly readings and require the class to practice, and thereby test, ideas. Our experiences in the course align with the literature on experiential learning (Kolb, 1984; Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013), both verifying that such low-stakes experiential exercises “chunk” the learning process into fun, manageable sequences, reinforce course content and skills, and increase students’ readiness to engage in and iterate around complex and messy processes (Williams Howe, Coleman, Hamshaw, & Westdijk, 2014). In fact, a wealth of evidence, including end-of-semester evaluations, instructor observations, written reflections, and informal interviews with students, have all confirmed that the support structures described earlier are effective mechanisms for fostering transdisciplinary collaboration and increasing the quality of team projects.

Collaborative stakeholder mapping. Stakeholder mapping—in which the term stakeholder refers to any individual or group of individuals involved in or impacted by a design problem (Cervero & Wilson, 2005)—requires students to explicitly visualize their perception of the design challenge’s social ecosystem. Initially co-created in week two of the course (as a student team and with core community partners), the stakeholder map is consistently revised over the first two thirds of the semester as mutual understandings of the design challenge’s social ecosystem evolve. This process, also referred to as social network analysis (Marin & Wellman, 2014), aligns with best practices emerging from participatory modeling by including the voices of those directly impacted by the issue and fostering opportunities for co-learning (Voinov & Bousquet, 2010). Ultimately becoming a living, evolving visual of the team’s research journey, the stakeholder map makes students’ assumptions transparent, clarifies and moderates each team’s focus and outreach efforts, and thus prompts reflection on the depth and breadth of their efforts.[8] For example, students in the last iteration of the course—who studied issues with satellite campuses within their communities—integrated local businesses and diverse communities into their maps (thereby becoming aware of their involvement) but failed to successfully complete outreach efforts to these stakeholders. Generally, stakeholder maps cue students, instructors, and collaborators to the potential for exclusionary practices and allow all players to flexibly adjust their next-step outreach efforts accordingly.[9]

Iteration. While integration is essential for uncovering key insights and trends, iteration—the requirement that students return to, reconsider, and revise their contextualized work—is essential for fostering community relationships and increasing the efficacy of students’ innovations under the limitations of semester timelines. Given that students seek to address complex and dynamic community problems, their initial efforts are inherently limited by a lack of experience working across epistemic and ethical divides within real-world contexts and focusing on complex, contested problems. Thus, their initial ideas for intervention are likely to yield unforeseen consequences (Lake, Fernando, & Eardley, 2016; Ramaley, 2014). Our experience has shown that it is not enough to tell students that their work should undergo massive transformation over time; rather, iterative feedback loops, through which students review and revise ideas each week, are needed. Given that this process of constant revision is often foreign to students (many of whom are used to drafting work once before submitting), we structure course requirements so that students are held accountable to consistent iteration.

Weekly accountability measures. Scaffolded accountability measures have proven essential to increasing the breadth and depth of student work within the confines of the traditional 15-week semester. We recommend that instructors aim for consistent positive iteration and suggest that they require students to (1) segment large, complex, real-world projects into short-term, manageable assignments, (2) provide quick and actionable feedback, and (3) explicitly link grades to the revision process. Thus, on a weekly basis, student teams are required to craft agendas, complete meeting minutes, assign tasks, and reflect upon the lessons learned from the previous week. For example, in any given week, team members might complete two to four interviews, review a secondary source, update their stakeholder map, and then collaboratively brainstorm their next steps. Tasks completed and lessons learned are reviewed in the following week’s class; as a team, students (1) download their insights, (2) discuss what they each did and what they learned, (3) synthesize their disparate insights, (4) brainstorm next steps, and (5) delegate tasks for the following week. This process of reflective engagement encourages mutual understanding and moves students’ projects forward in a flexibly responsive way, increasing the quantity and quality of their work while reducing the stress and anxiety involved in addressing a complex community problem.

Ideation. One of the most exciting aspects of the course is the opportunity it gives students to not simply study a complex community problem through a wide array of perspectives, but also ideate and offer validated interventions for the problem. In fact, the first two themes emphasized—integration and iteration—help ensure inclusive and effective ideation. That is, the support strategies for generating integration and iteration—low-stakes, personalized experiential learning opportunities, and weekly accountability measures, as well as stakeholder and insights mapping—prepare students to ideate, or generate a large quantity of ideas inspired by the insights gathered and synthesized throughout the process. Given the need to gather research first, ideation tends to unfold over the final weeks of the semester, a time when they are under the greatest pressure. This makes empathetic listening, dialogic flexibility, and integration even more challenging; experience has shown that students often struggle to “let go” of pet innovations (often emerging from within their own disciplinary and conceptual worldviews), to listen openly to critique, and to synthesize insights into revision cycles. The following strategies were created in response to the challenges inherent to this stage of the course, in an effort to prod students to resist the temptations toward convenient willful ignorance and narrowly framed innovations.

Collaborative modeling. We have found collaborative modeling and visualization techniques to be critical support mechanisms for improving the quality of student designs. Sometimes referred to as vision planning work, participatory, companion or soft systems modeling, this process employs inclusive and participatory methods for working toward integrated and action-oriented outcomes (Brundiers et al., 2013; Voinov & Bousquet, 2010). For example, cluster mapping, an essential strategy for uncovering potential synergies, explicitly visualizes insights and physically synthesizes them in order to uncover overarching ideas, systemic problems, or emergent themes.[10] Combined with round robin downloading of each team member’s research-based insights, such a tool empowers equitably the voices of all team members.

By visualizing and collaboratively mapping students’ key insights, we are able to explore how various innovations might align with and enhance one another, uncovering areas of convergence. In addition, collaborative modeling can be used to map student prototypes on an impact/effort matrix, helping key stakeholders uncover which innovations they want to advance. Completing this activity with community partners during the second iteration of the course revealed short- and long-term opportunities for innovation, and leveraged inter-team collaborative modeling in the classroom. For example, three of the four student teams found promotion to be critical for increasing awareness of food insecurity and on-campus resources related to this issue. Prototyping and modeling the structures, processes, and concerns through their collective outreach exposed opportunities for cross-team synergy and for integrating the best ideas with innovations more likely to yield fruitful change. Such mapping techniques represent powerful tools for encouraging students to wade into the complexities of their individual projects.

Pie in the sky versus bare bones. This tool, generated from innovation efforts during the first iteration of the course, provides a framework for stretching initial ideas by asking students to both dream big (i.e., generate “pie in the sky” ideas) and condense ideas down to their barest essence (i.e., to their “bare bones”). By first removing constraints identified early in their design process, students are encouraged to seek innovations that have the potential to drastically transform the system, and then, by whittling the idea down to its bare bones, they uncover its most essential components. As one student noted, this “process allowed me to get right to the edge and then circle back to figure things out, each time making my thoughts and prototypes a little clearer.” We have found that this practice not only stretches students’ thinking, but also increases the likelihood of securing buy-in from stakeholders, illuminating the range of possible interventions that could emerge from student innovations. Such a practice, then, tends to generate ideas that both seek to challenge or dismantle structural barriers and work within or around structural barriers.

Illustrating this point, the course’s first partner, the student food pantry director, immediately implemented bare bones recommendations and then—two years later—implemented pie-in-the-sky recommendations. For example, the director immediately harnessed high-impact, low-effort innovations designed to promote the food pantry and increase awareness (e.g., information about the pantry is now provided to all incoming freshmen, and prospective students now go on tours past the pantry and hear about its food justice model). Pie-in-the-sky innovations, such as completely reimagining the food pantry service model or creating a student food truck that serves all campus locations, are still being pursued since, in general, the formal approvals and additional funding needed to implement such pie-in-the-sky ideas require a longer timeframe.

Verifying these insights, the course collaborator noted that “even ideas that cannot be implemented immediately” provided “aspirational goals.” Given that “big easy” opportunities generated through students’ design thinking work tend to comprise low-stakes, low-energy, and high-reward transformations, they are hard not to implement. While bare bones, big easy opportunities work within often problematic systemic barriers, they are crucial to community partners, who often operate under serious resource constraints. Since community partners willingly devote a significant amount of time and energy to the course precisely because they hope to receive a range of short- and long-term actionable innovations, we recommend presenting a range of innovation opportunities.

Implementation. Though the previous examples support the creative generation and integration of insight-based ideas, they do not move those ideas into reality. Implementation requires students—and the instructors—to not only engage in participatory, “transacademic,” knowledge-generating work (Brundiers et al., 2013), but also wrestle with how they might enact those innovations (Batie, 2008; Frodeman, 2013; Guston, 2001; Ramaley, 2014). Such a commitment reflects our goal to ground the course in community and encourage accountability to those involved in the issues students address. For many students, the prospect of implementing their ideas is both incredibly exciting and incredibly stressful since they are asked to publicly share their insights and push for change. Lacking systemic university-wide change to support such efforts, this commitment has required that we imagine and enact course infrastructure for boundary spanning—that is, co-creating, prototyping, testing, and revising a range of mechanisms for moving student innovations to implementation. Collaborator debriefs and collaborative modeling are the strategies we have found most valuable in this boundary-spanning effort.

Collaborator debriefs and prototyping. We organize a variety of debrief sessions throughout the semester as a key space and time for students and stakeholders to share their expertise with one another. These sessions transition and catalyze student work through the design process and serve as collective touch points, expanding students’ thinking, helping determine their next steps, and inspiring creativity. In end-of-semester evaluations, students have often rated these debrief sessions as the most helpful and effective work completed throughout the course. While the focus and format of the sessions change as students move through the design thinking process, each session asks students to briefly present the current status of their work and engage in dialogue designed to both address tensions within their findings and generate “hybridized” next-step actions. Course instructors intentionally invite a variety of complementary and conflicting perspectives from across students’ stakeholder maps. This practice tends to heighten awareness of critical issues, expanding and re-aligning students’ frameworks with community needs. These sessions also tend to generate expansive networks, increasing the chances that student innovations will continue beyond the term limits of the course. On the other hand, as the literature on such practices has confirmed, implementation is still exacerbated by the standard limits of a traditional semester (Brundiers et al., 2013). Given that students end the semester with fairly rough prototype concepts, generating and testing support mechanisms for implementing these innovations is essential.

Lessons Learned

The tools described in this article have proven invaluable for navigating the often overwhelming complexity of wicked problems, providing support structures for integrating perspectives, ideating ways forward, and implementing ideas under real-world constraints in an iterative manner. In our experience—and as research has shown—seeking and analyzing an array of diverse perspectives takes considerable time and effort, though this work fosters the development of a hybrid observer whose span of attention is vastly broadened (Huutoniemi, 2015, p. 5); it also encourages a more diverse and comprehensive knowledge ecology, enabling more holistic views of complex systems. As we discuss next, such measures also deepen boundary-spanning skills (Williams, 2002).

Student Perspective

The student perspectives noted in this section have emerged from both qualitative and quantitative analysis of assigned coursework and end-of-semester optional surveys.[11] Though many students have described the course as a “whirlwind,” their feedback has also confirmed an almost “exponential” growth in student thinking. Unsurprisingly, final essays and end-of-semester evaluations have indicated that students find the course to be both incredibly challenging and rewarding. The course expectations are high, requiring students to (1) collaborate with their classmates and the community, (2) confront the complexity and inherent ambiguity of a complex problem, and (3) wrestle with the real-world implications of their innovations. Students have consistently highlighted challenges related to (1) the risk of real-world failure, (2) the pressure to confront their own assumptions, (3) the freedom inherent to the course and the messy nature of the problem, (4) gaining access to a wide range of stakeholders, and (5) the intensive nature of the collaborative process. Such experiences tend to run counter to students’ previous coursework and thus their expectations. Shouldering these requirements—and the risks—in addition to the more common stressors of coursework overwhelms some students. Many students have also requested readings, narratives, videos, and tools to deepen their understanding of the process.

On the other hand, in their end-of-semester reflections, students have consistently indicated that they appreciate (1) the engaged, applied nature of the course, (2) the opportunity to instigate real change, (3) the iterative, reflective, and dialogic nature of the process, and (4) the subsequent connections and relationships that developed. By navigating the profound discomfort that comes with this course and reflecting on their experiences, students’ final reflections have noted consistently that they have undergone transformative growth, defined as an expansion of their epistemological and ethical frameworks.

Indeed, one student team described the course as a lever upon which their vision of the world shifted: “Unbeknownst to us was the radical change in perspective—a dramatic rethink of the way we see and engage with the world.” Students’ final synthesis papers have confirmed this point. For instance, one student wrote, “The amount of skills that I have acquired from this course have been way more beneficial than a traditional class. This course gave me the ability to take what I have learned and apply it to real world needs.” Another wrote, “This was a wakeup call,” concluding that the course fostered trust across difference, a willingness to consider conflicting viewpoints, a recognition that one is at best partially wrong, and a desire to learn from failure. Yet, another student wrote that “an important lesson I learned in this class is that in order for change to happen, you must first believe that change is possible…. I was given the opportunity to put this idea into practice.” These conclusions align with the research on the power of high-impact practices, which tend to yield growth in perspective, build capacity, and enhance self-efficacy (Brundiers, 2013; Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013). The opportunity to impact a real problem affecting the community, along with the development and implementation of carefully scaffolded and adaptable course infrastructure, foster change-agent skills. In addition, the integration of opportunities for students in subsequent semesters to operate as project champions through independent study or special project work, teaching and research assistants, and community liaisons, ameliorates challenges emerging from the rigid infrastructure of the traditional three-credit semester course. Thus far, students have most frequently decided to either engage in internships in order to enact their projects or become course teaching apprentices.

Collaborator Perspective

Analogous to students’ final thoughts about the course, collaborators have summarized their involvement as slightly risky and demanding, but also motivating. Course collaborators have come from the campus and surrounding community. They have included individuals from nonprofits addressing homelessness and advocating for housing rights, campus-community liaisons seeking to foster community connections, and food justice organizations seeking to eliminate barriers to access. The nature of these collaborations is challenging on a number of fronts. Community partners are asked to invest a significant amount of time in exchange for no guarantees; in fact, collaborators are asked to “learn with students,” agreeing to be points-of-contact for student outreach and to field additional questions from the community. In addition, while collaborators have influence, they have little control: Team projects are directed by students’ primary and secondary research, their selection of key insights, and their own motivations. Furthermore, as students reach out to the community, collaborators cannot predict or direct the conversations that unfold. In the end, students’ pie-in-the-sky innovations often demand significant effort and resources under the harsh reality of the real world, where a lack of resources means that implementation is often unlikely. These tensions align with insights about upper-level engagement efforts and design thinking pedagogy that highlight the need for collaborative design efforts to navigate issues of power and resistance, short- and long-term change efforts, risk and reward, and depth versus breadth (Dorst et al., 2016). Given the struggle to move students’ ideas forward (and aligned with recommendations within the literature on collaborative engagement), frank discussions with potential course collaborators occur prior to and throughout the semester.

At the same time, collaborators have also described the partnership as exhilarating and energizing, noting that the time investment has been worthwhile. Community partners have consistently emphasized two primary reasons for valuing the partnerships: First, the intensive process students go through yields a wide range of compelling innovations, and, second, student outreach tends to cultivate an extensive support network, raise awareness, and generate publicity around important issues. In addition, students’ desires to make a real difference is often motivating. For instance, one student team researching housing and homelessness issues in the surrounding community recommended implementing a “community kindness wall” designed to encourage art, connection, and giving. The neighborhood organization was incredibly touched by and interested in seeing such an innovation move forward. As this example illustrates, students’ commitment, enthusiasm, research findings, and recommended innovations tend to expand a collaborator’s framework. Thus, even when student ideas are not immediately implemented, course collaborators have concluded that the partnership is rewarding.

Instructor Perspective

It is no surprise that this course also confronts instructors with a series of robust challenges, which emerge from efforts to implement high-impact practices that support and stretch a diverse group of students and yield valuable outcomes for course collaborators. However, like our students and collaborators, we see the course as at once demanding, risky, and rewarding. Supporting students, negotiating disparate contextual issues related to complex community projects, and collaborating with community partners requires immense plasticity, thoughtfulness, and patience. These challenges have been confirmed within the literature on design work and transdisciplinary community engagement efforts within the structures of higher education (Brundiers et al., 2013; Smith, 2017; Stauffacher, Walter, Lang, Wiek, & Sholtz, 2006). Foremost among the challenges of this course is striking a balance between instruction and facilitation. There is extensive delivery of content on process through course readings, followed by facilitation and application of the same. The lens of interaction with students can shift instantly, offering tremendous opportunities for meaningful and impactful engagement in the classroom. Moreover, these struggles have encouraged iterative innovation, requiring instructors to develop the very same skillsets they hope to foster in their students—skills found in boundary spanners and project facilitators.[12]

Uncovering and harnessing diverse resources from across the campus and local community and implementing student innovations post-semester have proven to be the most tenacious problems encountered. We have discovered that student motivation, direct contact with key stakeholders, building and fostering networks, and offering bare bones, big easy innovations have been critical to yielding short-term transformation. We wonder, however, how we might better leverage the momentum, networks, skills, and innovations generated during the semester after the semester. We have thus far explored a few different means for doing so, including: (1) post-semester credit for students interested in operating as community liaisons, project champions, and/or teaching or research apprentices; (2) partnering with other courses in order to leverage student prototypes; and (3) pursuing implementation through the social networks developed in the community. The creation of a position designed to span boundaries, foster connections across the community, and implement projects would represent a potentially fruitful avenue for increasing the chances of sustained impact.

While we are committed to fostering these connections, current university structures make doing so challenging. Our experiences have confirmed our deeply held belief that institutions of higher education interested in having sustained impact must create the space, time, and resources to trace the outgrowth of social connections, uncover and connect with key players, and enact student prototypes.

However, we would be remiss if we did not also emphasize the rewards of such a course. Through this process, we help students access and combine place-based experiential knowledge with academic knowledge and sense-making structures, fostering important change-agent skills—flexibility, humility, tenacity, courage, and creativity—valuable at all stages in life. Our efforts have yielded actionable insights about how we can help our students, our community, and ourselves engage in collective problems. By reaching beyond the confines of our university, by extending into our community, we become a community.


This form of design thinking pedagogy offers students an opportunity to combine passions, values, and disciplinary training in a real-world context, helping them to see what they have to offer in addressing shared, high-stakes, complex problems. By providing opportunities to learn through collaborative reflective and iterative action, it also highlights how they might address messy, ill-defined, high-stakes problems (whether professional, civic, or personal). Such a pedagogy encourages students to see themselves as responsible and active members of their larger communities by providing opportunities to leave the campus for the “real world” and work within their campus community to affect change (Gallini & Moely, 2003). We have observed that it fosters epistemic humility and creative confidence, empowers collaborative leadership, and builds change-agent skills. It encourages students to not simply walk away from the dominant systems that are failing society, but also study them—and to do so collaboratively and from a variety of angles. Indeed, the course objectives and processes align with Kuh and O’Donnell’s (2013) eight key elements for quality high-impact practices. Specifically, the course sets high performance expectations, requires a “significant investment of time and effort” focusing on real-world problems, fosters much interaction around “substantive matters,” exposes students to diverse circumstances and people, provides “frequent, timely, and constructive feedback,” offers consistent reflection opportunities, and—in the end—requires a public demonstration of competence (p. 10). According to Wheatley and Frieze (2011), this collaborative work is critical; we conclude that the course helps to create what they call trailblazers (those willing to experiment into the future) and illuminators (boundary-spanning storytellers who make alternative choices visible). How does it do any of this? Through (1) scaffolding accessible practices for fostering iterative collaboration (i.e., low-stakes, in-class practice); (2) visualizing students’ thinking, explicating it for others’ review (i.e., collaborative modeling); (3) engaging the tension between disparate perspectives and uncovering possible synergies (i.e., cluster mapping, pie-in-the-sky versus bare bones ideation); (4) returning, rethinking, and redoing every step of the way (i.e., weekly accountability measures, collaborator debriefs); and, ultimately, (5) reimagining a better future and taking steps toward that future (i.e., personal design challenge, innovation symposium and project dossier). Indeed, the flexible infrastructural supports and hybrid pedagogical tools built over time align with and enhance the recommendations provided from a range of fields, including service-learning and community engagement, experiential learning, interdisciplinary studies, transdisciplinary research, transition management, policy administration, and science policy.

Beyond empowering students to engage in messy, high-stakes, place-based issues, the course validates community knowledge through boundary-spanning, transdisciplinary work. By doing so, it “counter-acts serious problems with the academy’s tendency to legitimize and privilege only certain frameworks about what counts as expertise” (Gusa, 2010, p. 469).[13] That is, the publicly engaged nature of the course puts students, experts, the public, and key stakeholders on more equal footing, making their perspectives available for scrutiny. The public and iterative nature of this work can increase the chances of changing institutional structures that perpetuate and reinforce inwardly focused, artificially developed conditions and mechanisms of self-preservation. Course processes expose stakeholders to the fallible and limited nature of initial perceptions, shifting perspectives about the relevancy and significance of the issues being addressed. We have found that outreach and engagement are paramount to creating a stronger community by creating connections across various boundaries, nurturing opportunities for mutual understanding of values and strengths, and thereby developing relationships across differences.

While the course leaves us with a few lingering questions and concerns about the role of the academy in preparing students for the world ahead, it also provides hybrid strategies for supporting transdisciplinary collaborative modeling around complex problems and shapes projects that increase the chances of more just, inclusive, and sustainable impact. We encourage readers to build upon these initial ideas, to imaginatively repurpose these tools, and thereby to more fruitfully and collaboratively engage in the unique challenges of your time and place.


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Danielle Lake, 2017 winner of the John Saltmarsh Award for Emerging Leaders in Civic Engagement, is an assistant professor in the Liberal Studies Department at Grand Valley State University. As a public philosopher, her work seeks to engage with, in, and through the public in order to address collective problems. Her interests include wicked problems and the processes most conducive to meliorating social problems, including: systemic engagement, public philosophy, design thinking, and participatory action. Recent publications can be found at http://works.bepress.com/danielle_lake/

Marc Lehman is an alumni from Grand Valley State University. He was also a student and, subsequently, a teaching apprentice in “Design Thinking to Meet Real World Needs.” Mr. Lehman is interested in human centered design and its role within Anthropology and is currently pursuing Ph.D. programs.


C:\Users\ja187\AppData\Local\Microsoft\Windows\INetCache\Content.Word\Chamberlain.pngLinda Chamberlain is the Frederik Meijer Endowed Honors Chair in Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Frederick Meijer Honors College at Grand Valley State University. She has also served as executive director of Grand Valley’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. As the former senior vice president for Global Forex Trading and executive director of GR Current, a business incubator, Chamberlain has extensive experience in business, design thinking, and entrepreneurship.

We define high-impact practices as those that foster learning environments in which critical and creative thinking and collaborative action are encouraged and are grounded in the real world (Finley & McNair, 2013; Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013).

Defined broadly, ideation encourages a wide range of idea generation and can be juxtaposed with critical analysis efforts (Morris & Warman, 2015).

In an effort to align ourselves with Ellsworth’s (1989) suggestion to engage in a “collective struggle” (p. 303) to learn together and ensure that diverse perspectives are represented, these insights have been shared with and confirmed by community partners and students from the course. In addition, this article is co-authored by a student alumnus of the course.

Emerging from recent interdisciplinary scholarship, the term transdisciplinary refers to efforts to span both disciplinary and institutional boundaries in order to cogenerate and widely disseminate knowledge outside of the academy (Batie, 2008; Frodeman, 2013; Guston, 2001; Huutoniemi, 2015; Ramaley, 2014).

This practice aligns with new research emerging around asset-based course design (Bauer, Kniffen, & Priest, 2015).

Williams, Fam, and Lopes (2017), for instance, encouraged students to operate as interlocutors by advocating “on behalf of diverse users and stakeholders,” questioning their assumptions, asking tough questions, and unraveling “normative conditions” (163).

As one student wrote, “I think that the PDC process is one of the best parts of this class. A personal design challenge can teach us all to view a positive implemented change in our lives as accomplishable. We get to see the step-by-step motion of making change and really force the opportunity to iterate, generate ideas, think about the factors in play, and reflect on our progress. Using this as a stepping stone to more outward design thinking may be one of the keys to moving out of this project, and into creating change in the real world. What better way to understand how to be a catalyst for change than with practice in the realm of your own personal goals?”

Some of the current best practices include communicating information about various stakeholders and their relations to the design problem through the use of color shade and intensity, vertical and horizontal spacing, relative size, and arrows to mark relevant relationships.

Interested readers can learn more about this practice through a variety of sources, including the freely accessible 2005 Introduction to Social Network Methods. Valuable resources can also be found through the Innovations in Collaborative Modeling conference: http://modeling.outreach.msu.edu/about.

Cluster mapping—also referred to as affinity or convergence mapping, insight clustering, and insight sorting (Kumar & LaConte, 2012)—takes large amounts of data and “clusters” them into themes. After downloading key insights from primary and secondary research each week (often captured through key insights written on sticky notes), students review their insights for connections.

Supplemental student surveys gathered quantitative and qualitative data documenting student perceptions of course relevancy and challenges, the most and least helpful course projects and in-class activities, as well as students’ level of engagement in their course work. The survey questionnaire consisted of both Likert-scale and open-ended questions. This study was labeled exempt by Grand Valley State University’s Human Research Review Committee (HRRC): 17-179-H. In addition, students and course collaborators signed a release form agreeing to share their insights.

Brundiers et al. (2013) coined the term transacademic interface managers to describe these essential skills. Transacademic interface managers initiate a “functional and continuous process of collaboration, foster “mutual ownership and accountability among project participants,” encourage integration of knowledge and a “solution-oriented” approach” (p. 4620).

For current critiques of this approach within higher education, see Vinsel (2018).