By Steve Kelley, September guest blogger
I was in Potsdam in July, standing next to my friend Aleksandar as he quietly said, “My college (Heidelberg University) wasn’t anything like this!” He couldn’t help commenting after we had seen student presentations on the projects they had completed during their 12 weeks at the Hasso Plattner Institute School of Design Thinking. Surrounded by slogans like “Don’t Wait, Innovate,” I had to agree that my college and the University of Minnesota, where I now work, didn’t create anything like the higher education experiences of these design thinking students.
One team was demonstrating new ideas they had developed for a sponsor who owned facial recognition technology (it knows you smiled at the box of Cheerios) and wanted to use the technology in non-retail settings. Another team had created large foam cubes that played the sounds of different musical instruments when you sat down (a 7-year-old girl and I had fun playing the violin and clarinet parts of an orchestra). The cubes were part of a design for the Potsdam Symphony’s effort to reach a low-income neighborhood in the city.
Young people from all over the world came to Potsdam to learn new skills — design thinking — and to learn them in a new way — solving real-world problems for a real sponsor in a diverse team.
The School of Design Thinking wasn’t my first time learning about this new approach to higher education. I had read about the Stanford Institute of Design and The Laboratory at Harvard and I had listened to instructors from Denmark’s KaosPilots and from Amsterdam’s Knowmads. The latter two organizations may use and teach design methods for solving a wide range of problems but they also explicitly teach leadership and how to make change in the world.
Students and society need much more from higher education than we have been delivering. The new approach represented by these educators gives us an opportunity. We could teach new skills that integrate across disciplines, combining analysis, intuition, science and aesthetics into a new, innovative whole that solves real problems. Student teams could work on problems presented by external sponsors or ones they identified. In Minnesota, this happens now in some courses at some schools, many of them in graduate school. It doesn’t happen on a sustained basis, over multiple years, so students could practice complex skills and address really complex problems.
We don’t have to abandon courses in disciplines like chemistry, literature and economics. We could enable undergraduates to work on both projects and a major. We could put undergrads and grad students on the same teams. We wouldn’t have to give up on getting students to graduate in four years. We could enable them to graduate with new problem-solving skills and the sense of leadership and power to change the world that would come from having done it in school.Then innovative Minnesota higher education would really be leading the nation.