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How to infiltrate a GenEd class with a two week design thinking module

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Design thinking is a methodology for innovation that brings creativity into the way we design and solve problems. Defined in the section below, the design thinking method is a human centered approach to problem solving which brings together creative thinkers from every different facet of expertise. Together, these individuals can tackle a wide range of problems and issues that are not easily solved without collaboration.

Design thinking requires individuals to think divergently, and bring in many solutions to a single problem. Although design thinking seems to have obvious applications in the realms of engineering and science, it can have positive effects on less technical subjects as well. For example, history professors can use divergent thinking and design thinking to engage students in different ways and figure out the most effective way to learn a topic. Each type of subject is trained to think a specific way. This allows students from different academic backgroundsto bring their own unique perspectives to the table while working together.

A fantastic way to expose individuals to what may seem to be a foreign methodology is when they are captive - they have to listen! Where does one find captive college students? General education classes, of course! This wiki article will detail the essential steps to get off the ground and into a classroom to make an impact on any campus by integrating design thinking into the curriculum for each and every student.



In order to engage a gen-ed class and introduce students to design thinking you need to things: the professor’s permission and some awesome prototyping materials. Below are some tips and items to consider as you plan out your conquest of general education courses.

  • Put people in the right situation and they can throw out silly ideas without having to worry about being ridiculed by their peers.
    • This can rekindle anyone’s confidence by the end of the design thinking course. Some people may start out timid, but if the course is tailored to each group correctly, each person will be highly engaged by the end.
  • It may be difficult to help each individual feel comfortable in a room of people from different fields of expertise, but it is important to have a diversity of disciplines in one room. It is also important to keep them all on the same track.
    • The goal is to make them work together, instead of arguing their perspectives. A good start to this is by making people pay attention.
  • Have laptops put away, setup the tables in a circle, or whatever it may take to engage the students. Throughout the design thinking course, the students will begin to understand how design thinking applies to each and everyone in the room.
  • Walk participants through the basic steps of design thinking (see graphic above) and encourage them to tackle a problem together, either in small groups or as a whole. It is important to focus on something that is an important issue, but is not divisive in nature and can promote collaboration to create a solution.


Unlike many other projects or workshops, posting flyers about a design thinking session is generically not the strongest marketing strategy to appeal to all types of audiences. Word choice is crucial to any sort of market campaign. For example, a flyer with a word on it such as “creative” draws a more artsy crowd, where as a flyer containing the word “prototype” typically draws a more engineering minded crowd. Instead of creating initiatives that occur outside of classroom, it is fundamental to implement ideas that get yourself into the classroom.

The best way to spread the design thinking concept is finding a way into the classroom. Whether this be in a one class session or in a two week curriculum, once you begin to teach the ideas of design thinking, students will find interest. In the classroom, students are required to focus which gives you their attention easier than trying to track them down outside class with their busy schedules.

It is also essential to advertise to a broad market. For example, as mentioned earlier marketing to a specific audience using words such as “creative”, which draws artsy people, or “prototyping” which draws engineers, is very limiting. Think more broad. Depending on the university, using programs such as new student orientation might be effective because all types of students are engaged in this program. Creating a design thinking session exclusively for entrepreneurship majors could easily deter students who are intimidated by innovation or not as interested in design thinking.Using a broad market with a semi-captive audience will get you the exposure and support you need to find your following on campus.


When proposing a new idea, you are going to endure speedbumps and brick walls along the way, but proving your concept is everything. Emulating a design thinking session, is as simple as getting yourself in front of one class or even just one professor. All you need to do succeed is get the funding you need. The best solution is to be prepared with examples of how design thinking can be used universally on a campus. The end goal would be to get the funding you need for either a Supply Cart or a Maker Space.
A Supply Cart can be brought from classroom to classroom to be used for rapid prototyping which is involved in the design thinking process. This cart can be filled with miscellaneous materials to help get creativity flowing. Below is a list of the materials that were in the cart that Tanner Wheadon created during his first sessions of design thinking.

  • Supply Cart (low resolution supplies, expect $500-700 to purchase):
    • Flat stuff (foam sheets, felt, film)
    • Paper (construction paper, cardstock)
    • Building materials (foil and saran wrap)
    • Treasure ( Playing cards, cubes, clay, stickers, fun neat things)
    • String (yarn, lanyard, string, twine), Wire (piper cleaners, twist ties)
    • Sticks (popsicle sticks, straws, balsa wood)
    • Adhesives (tape, glue sticks, tacky glue, staplers, rubber bands, paper clips, binder clips)
    • Writing instruments (pens, pencils, sharpies)
    • Practical tools (scissors, etc.)


Tanner Wheadon is a University Innovation Fellow from the Spring 2015 cohort. Tanner is a student majoring in Technology Management at Utah Valley University. Fascinated by the Design Thinking process, Tanner teaches seminars on innovation to students and members of the community. Determined to change the convergent thinking trends of education, he worked with educators to create a makerspace on campus where students can generate new ideas through collaboration. Tanner began his work after being denied the request of a Maker Space. Not letting this brick wall stop his creativity, Tanner made a smaller request of a supply cart for rapid prototyping. After receiving his cart, he asked professors in a Tech 1010 class to give him time to come up with a curriculum. His two week program engaged the students with icebreakers and simple examples and began to open up their creative problem solving minds.

After his successful two week program, Tanner’s new concept spread on campus and he was able to bring his program into many different classrooms, spreading the ideas of design thinking around his university. Recently Tanner was able to lead a 6-hour Design Thinking workshop in a meeting that included the president of his university, his cabinet, a few VP's, a few Deans, and faculty going through a leadership training program. In all, he had about 25 of his biggest stakeholders in one room. Although he was extremely nervous about the workshop, he was able to break down social barriers and embrace the process. The workshop went fantastic and was filled with energy, silliness, and openness the entire time.

Check out the big wigs at Utah Valley University putting on their design thinking caps!

Design thinking caps.JPG

For more on Tanner's story, read the article Prototyping to Prove a Concept on the UIF blog.

Thanks for reading - now go out and find your own mobile maker space to make a difference on campus!