Design Thinking goes to college

Design Thinking goes to college

Recently I had the opportunity to facilitate a design thinking workshop at an extraordinary first generation college student conference held at Brown University (1vyG). First gens face a myriad of challenges as they make the sometimes difficult transition from home to higher education, navigate the college culture through graduation, and enter the workforce. Most studies of first generation students usually focus on their academic deficiencies.

But that was not what the Brown conference was about. Students found their voice, expressing openly and candidly their real life experiences as first in their families to go to college. And design thinking, a human-centered approach to solving complex problems, proved to be a useful tool for students (and administrators) as they moved beyond having their problems defined by others to defining challenges for themselves.

Design thinking approach

Design thinking approach

The design thinking workshops presented at the conference worked like this: students and administrators divided themselves into groups of 3-5 individuals whom they did not know to avoid group “silos” based on university affiliation. Group members talked about their experiences and observations based on empathy. Students and administrators openly discussed individual feelings. Some mentioned “impostor syndrome” (defined as a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist even in the face of contradictory information). Many felt like “outsiders,” constantly confused about how to access human and material resources at the university. Others reflected on feelings of isolation, finding it difficult to find other students “like me.” Administrators and students also discussed the realities of financial stress and first gen difficulties in relating to students from wealthier backgrounds.

This exercise of empathy was extraordinary. Sharing experiences and finding connections immediately engaged students in designing solutions to these challenges. Even more extraordinary was what I observed in mixed groups of both students and administrators. The experiences of today’s first generation students seemed to awaken suppressed feelings in administrators who themselves were yesterday’s first generation students. A shared frame of reference helped workshop participants develop powerful new understandings beyond academic remediation.

These discussions linked to research findings helped students and administrators define particular needs. They drafted “How might we …?” questions like:

  • How might we bring together college students from upper, middle and lower social class backgrounds?
  • How might we educate non-first generation professors and advisors on how to address and relate to first generation college students?
  • How might we engage parents of first generation students in the student experience of transition from home to college?

Once group members chose what they considered to be the best questions, groups came up with ideas — all sorts of ideas. They had entered the ideate space that encourages rapid generation of ideas to answer defined questions. Sometimes the process of idea generation reveals that groups have been asking the wrong question, allowing them to redefine questions.  More often, the process generates unexpected novel and original ideas.

Design thinking ideate

When group members listen to each other without judgment, they are more likely to think outside the box. Design thinking encourages solutions ranging from the very practical to the new and original:

“How might we include the parents of first generation students in making the transition from home to university during the first semester of college?”

WILD SOLUTION: Fly parents to campus, put them up in a hotel, and let them experience a day in the life of their daughter or son.

DARLING SOLUTION: Allow parents to participate in student orientation activities via webinar.

PRACTICAL SOLUTION: Organize a meeting for first generation freshmen and upper level students to learn how the older students bridge the space between school and home.

Group members then chose their best idea to create a rapid prototype.


An example of a “rapid” prototype

Prototyping is an iterative process.  Once they create a concrete prototype, groups cross an important border. They move beyond talking to actually doing something.  Workshop participants at Brown produced more than 16 different prototypes based on their best “How might we …?” questions.

how might we...

First iteration prototype of a college program serving first generation students

Students and administrators left the workshop with prototypes that were actionable ideas addressing real time issues first generation students face. The last space in design thinking, testing, depends on students and administrators at each participating campus improving prototypes through feedback.

The design thinking workshop I facilitated at Brown is just one example of taking design thinking to college. Higher education institutions all over the United States are integrating design thinking into their curricula.  Davidson College in North Carolina, for example, tried design thinking to create a 10-week curriculum focusing on urban challenges in the city of Charlotte. Students used the Open IDEO global platform to develop prototypes based on the question, “How might parents in low income communities ensure children thrive during their first five years?”

The design thinking approach, initially developed at Stanford University’s design school, has migrated into its undergraduate curriculum. One of Stanford’s most popular upper division courses, “Designing Your Life,” based on the design thinking approach, enrolls 17% of Stanford seniors. The course aims to connect school and life by challenging students to think about what they want to become and giving them the tools to take action. One student in the class said it gave him a totally different understanding of the word, “vocation.”  It is not a job, but “…this feeling I have of true agency over my work, because I know what I stand for and have tools to fix things I encounter in my life.”

I know what I stand for and have tools to fix things I encounter in my life.  –Stanford student using design thinking

These words ring true for the first generation students who attended the design thinking workshop at Brown’s 1vyG conference. Design thinking took them beyond talking and provided them with tools to “take action” and address the real issues they encounter as the first in their family to go to college.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently live in Shanghai, crossing borders and exploring cultures in Asia.



  • Aaronseath August 08, at 04:42

    Thanks for a really wonderful blog. It was actually very useful. I'm so glad I discovered this.


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