Students learn to think like problem solvers

By Dominque Rose Ingraham

When my professor announced that all first-year Honors College students were required to attend a “design thinking” workshop on a Saturday morning, I groaned. Getting up early sounded awful, although I was eager to hear more about a concept that was completely foreign to me.

Design thinking, as I would learn, is a way of blending creativity and critical thinking to solve problems efficiently. What I learned at this workshop can be applied to my studies—I am a computer science major—as well as my future career, making for an experience that I am excited to share.

During the workshop, speakers testified to the effectiveness of design thinking in their daily lives and explained how to best approach it. Startup FIU cofounder and director Bob Hacker, for example, extolled open-mindedness—toward both yourself and others—as key to generating new ideas. Honors College adjunct professor Eliana Alba asked if we knew “the best demographic at coming up with solutions.” Her answer: children, because “they aren’t afraid to fail,” a reminder not to get caught up in overthinking or self-censorship.

With the stated objective of “practicing radical collaboration and relinquishing judgment,” we participated in group activities to facilitate cooperation and problem solving under pressure. One required that my peers and I build a tower as high as we could using only dry spaghetti, tape, marshmallows and twine. Even though my team did not construct the tallest structure in the room, we benefitted from the experience of working together under a tight deadline.

Near the end of the workshop, we were tasked with answering a challenge communicated not in words but, ambiguously, though a series of pictures drawn like a comic strip. Our group figured that the problem involved helping to get a post-apocalyptic world back into shape, or how to make the wasteland inhabitable again.

The leaders of the workshop broke down the process into the five steps of design thinking—empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test—and we had to talk out and write down our thoughts as we went along. How does one “empathize on demand” we wondered aloud. Our group gave one of the characters in the pictures a name—Emma—and decided that the other character was Emma’s grandmother. Establishing that bit of story helped us to begin putting ourselves in their shoes. From there we needed to agree on the problem to address, think of ways to help, develop a solution to improve conditions and, finally, present it all to our peers.

Important to the activity was getting different perspectives. While I was thinking about the role technology could play, I’m sure that the marketing student was thinking more about societal issues and the architecture major focused on something else altogether. That diversity of disciplines went well with one of the directives that most stuck with me throughout this activity: “Do not shoot down any idea when brainstorming, even if it sounds crazy.”

Consequently, I learned to be more careful about how I cooperate and how important it is to have an open mind when thinking creatively. I realize that often times in the past I would dismiss my own ideas before even verbalizing them. Now instead I shared them all, even the “crazy” ones, and refrained from shooting down anyone else’s. We recorded all of them on paper. It not only kept harmony in the group but encouraged everyone to keep thinking—the best way to come up with a winning idea.

When the workshop wrapped up, I found myself glad that I had gone. Design thinking can be applied to everyday life and problems. Whether it is as small as fixing a dispute between friends or finding a way to engage meaningfully in community service, design thinking can improve how we develop solutions to any type of problem.