Pioneering Learning: Developing a Maker Culture at Smith

A $2.5-million grant from the Branta Foundation will fund a pioneering pilot program in Design Thinking and Innovation at Smith beginning next fall.

Design thinking, says Provost Katherine Rowe, is a “human-centered problem-solving process” that seeks solutions that balance human needs, technical feasibility and financial viability. An interdisciplinary approach that can be applied to fields ranging from engineering to anthropology and dance, design thinking uses methodologies often associated with creative design work to solve problems in other domains.

What exactly does that look like? In the classroom, design thinking often starts with a real-world challenge. For example: as Smith begins the process of redesigning Neilson Library, how might we re-imagine the study carrel of the future?

To solve that problem in a “maker culture” like the one Smith is developing, students and faculty engaged in design thinking will try things out, rework ideas, develop prototypes of solutions, test their prototypes with users, conduct additional field work and revise. In this example, their results could be shared with the architects designing the new Neilson.

This process illustrates a fundamental principle of design thinking: the gap between an idea and its transformation into reality provides tremendous opportunity for learning, no matter the field of study. As choreographer Jonathan Burrows once noted, “An idea in my head is real. It is, however, only a real idea, and not a real dance. To make a dance, you have to deal with the reality of a dance, and not with the reality of an idea.”

Since 2010, Borjana Mikic, faculty director of design thinking initiatives and the R.B. Hewlett ’40 Professor of Engineering at Smith, has been leading a group of faculty and staff engaged with the question of what design thinking accomplishes in terms of student learning. These ongoing discussions led to the development of the pilot program. “Faculty from many departments have become deeply interested in design-based curricula,” Mikic says, “because we see it as a transformative turn in the liberal arts. Design thinking fosters creative, agile problem-solving at a very high level.”

Smith’s pilot program will be quite broad. The Branta grant will support a number of new courses, including multidisciplinary course collaborations (designed to solve a problem or answer a question that can’t be solved within a single discipline), as well as co-curricular workshops and design challenges. The grant will support the hiring of a co-director/designer in residence, as well as a limited-term, non-tenure track Picker Professor of Practice in the engineering program. The professor of practice will open new areas of instruction, research, and creative work, and connect students with current developments in the field.

The Branta grant will also support the development of cross-disciplinary “maker spaces”— workspaces dedicated to creative collaboration that will allow students and faculty to develop, build, test and revise solutions to course-specific and campus-wide design challenges.

It’s an ambitious agenda—one that is well suited to Smith, Mikic says. “This generation of Smith students is interested in innovative ways to solve the pressing problems they see in the world,” she notes. “Experience in design thinking will help our students—and faculty, too—develop the habits of mind and body required to lead those innovations.”

Mikic says design thinking will also help students develop the creative confidence that accompanies the act of making in its various forms. The development of self-efficacy—a belief system about one’s own ability to affect change and have a positive impact on the world—is particularly important within the context of Smith’s mission as a women’s college focused on developing leaders for society’s challenges, she says.

This sense of agency is captured in student comments from Mikic’s “Design for the Future” course, which relies extensively on design thinking methodologies.

At the end of the course, one student wrote, “I’ve become more confident in trying new [things] that interest me even if they are scary at first. The worst that can happen is failure, which I’m more used to now, and I have accepted it as part of growth.”

Said another student, “Trying new things and failing is the only way to improve. I don’t know how to make that not sound cheesy, but it’s true.”