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How to infiltrate freshman courses to introduce Design Thinking

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Their Story

Nathan LaWarre and Jill Puckett are University Innovation Fellows (UIF) from Western Michigan University (WMU). Nathan is majoring in Computer Engineering with a minor in Environmental Studies and Sustainability. Jill is majoring in Advertising and Promotion with minors in General Business and Gender and Women’s Studies. Both Jill and Nathan are members of the WMU Innovation Club, where Jill has served as Marketing Coordinator. The Innovation Club, a UIF-led initiative, strives to get students excited about learning through hands-on experience. The club, which consists of 7 board members and a general membership of 15 regularly-attending members, contains a wealthof knowledge about design thinking, and their members were instrumental in helping facilitate the process of creating the workshop that Nathan and Jill began.

Uniquely, at WMU, First Year Experience (FYE) courses are taken by students in all departments in an interdisciplinary setting. Nathan and Jill sought out to introduce the process of design thinking to First Year students making the transition from high school to college. They wanted specifically to teach students how to solve problems with empathy and collaboration. With the help of University Innovation Fellows, funding sources such as the Technology Department at WMU, as well as the Director of First-Year Experiences, they were able to quickly implement a workshop where they will teach empathetic design thinking to many rotating FYE courses.


After taking stock of resources on and around WMU’s campus, Nathan and Jill noticed there was a lack of innovation resources targeted towards freshmen at their university and assessed a need for an early introduction to design thinking. Sharing a passion for design thinking, both Nathan and Jill noticed how beneficial the process was for them, and explained that design thinking exposes people to different thinking styles and familiarizes people with disciplines different from their own. Knowing that freshmen are at an impressionable time, they wanted to introduce these students to design thinking early in their education. Nathan and Jill hoped that, by helping freshman understand these ideas and be able to explain it to others, they could spread their knowledge of design thinking across their university. Additionally, they could also recruit students to join Innovation Club.

Designing the Workshop

The training they received as University Innovation Fellows was crucial in helping Nathan and Jill develop methods for introducing freshmen students to powerful tools and concepts from design thinking, especially those related to empathy and problem solving. Over the summer, the pair began building a 45 to 75 minute workshop that is currently in the process of refinement and critique by advisors and stakeholders. Starting in September of 2017, Nathan and Jill plan to visit  the 7 FYE classes whose professors indicated interest at the FYE Fair and continue presenting the workshop to students throughout the Fall 2017 semester. Through exit surveys taken by participants, Nathan and Jill hope to learn what is effective and engaging in order to further improve the workshop structure. The pair has designed their workshop to appeal to students across majors, as is typically the composition of FYE classes.

They explain that they are “shooting for the middle ground” because of the interdisciplinary nature of FYE courses at their university.  Their goal is to keep everyone engaged during these sessions. They remark that a specific challenge they face is in making material “tailored to different classes especially because they are freshmen,” adding that they are very likely to change their major. They are including short, simple exercises to introduce design thinking principles, describe the steps involved, and explain why they are important. Their ultimate goal is to show students how design thinking can help them solve problems more quickly, efficiently, and successfully.


To implement this course in the FYE program, Nathan and Jill needed the support of WMU faculty and staff. Because they were working with course material, they had to ask many people for permission. They started by talking to interns at the FYE department, then were passed up the chain of command before arriving at the Director of First Year Experiences. They were able to their pitch course activities and learning goals to the Director. They were then given permission to attend a fair presented to faculty that showcased the different course offerings that the professors could teach. At this time, they had a goal to get seven professors to buy into their idea and ultimately had seven register. Nathan said, “Anytime one signed up, it was another win for us”.


When initially planning for infiltrating the FYE courses, Nathan and Jill knew they had a fixed deadline the following fall semester. They not only had to persuade professors to agree to have design thinking in their classes, but to also produce a lesson plan that would be ready when the students would take the class. While convincing the Director of First Year Experiences and then the professors at the fair took relatively little time on their own, Jill said that a semester is a good amount of time to find interested people and work your way through the system until you find the right individuals who can help you make your project happen. They explained one to two months gives you ample time to design the course. This consists of understanding the material as well as presentation. In total, Nathan and Jill spent roughly six months of work, including the summer where they took a break, before they taught their first course in the fall 2017 semester.

Challenges and Tips

Keeping the club running and developing the workshops hasn’t been an easy task. Though they originally thought the Engineering College would be willing to provide funding for their club and project, Nathan said their unwillingness to do so forced the students to shop around elsewhere. Fortunately, Nathan said, the Technology Department took an interest in their project.

Though the project built a significant amount of momentum during the school year, when summer came, operations ceased. But though the students returned, the momentum did not. This was especially discouraging to Nathan and Jill, who claimed that they had to work hard to maintain their excitement for club initiative in order to recoup the energy necessary to continue their task.

Overcoming these sorts of challenges is what this project is all about. “Breaking down silos” is a passion of Jill’s, one that she said has helped with the success of the project through support from an interdisciplinary group of faculty. It’s also, Jill said, something their workshop stresses by bringing together students from across majors.

Nathan and Jill also realize that their workshops may not be enough. To reach the wider student body at their university, they also plan to hold impromptu 20 minute-long classes in the middle of campus, called “pop-up classes.” They also plan to hold what they call “un-conferences,” where the formalities of structured conferences are thrown out the window and everyone is invited to work on everyone else’s ideas. These initiatives cover ideas related to design thinking as well as discuss what needs to be changed on campus.

Overall, Nathan and Jill have received a lot of positive feedback and support from both faculty and students at their school. They hope to complete their first workshop this coming semester and continue spreading the ideas surrounding design thinking to the broader student population at WMU and beyond.  As they look toward the future, Nathan and Jill  hope their design thinking workshops will continue to be part of FYE, and that teaching design thinking will remain a part of their university even after they graduate.

Written by: Diana Bechdol, Ryan Botts, Courtney Pelissero, Dallas Elleman, Winter Wilson, and Jarrodd Davis