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New Design Thinking Studio for Social Innovation to tackle community issues in creative ways

The pilot program will launch in the spring as a way for 15 to 20 Elon students to immerse themselves in crafting potential solutions for local challenges. 

More than a dozen Elon students will be part of a new semester-long effort to use the tenets of design thinking to address complex problems impacting the broader community.

The new Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation will pilot in the spring under a new model that will have a team of at least 15 students completely immersed in the semester-long experience that will count for 16 semester hours — a full course load. The studio will concentrate on using the design thinking process, which grew out of architecture and design disciplines, to craft solutions through a partnership with the Alamance County Wellness Collaborative.

​The structure of the effort and the design thinking process can help address broader community issues and challenges that can be complex and multifaceted, said Rebecca Pope-Ruark, associate professor of English, who is one of four faculty members crafting the program. “If you’re working with social problems and with community driven efforts, those problems are often intertwined with other problems,” she said. “It’s not like you can fix a problem like you might fix a product.”

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, associate professor of English and one of four Elon faculty members who developed the Design Thinking Studio for Social Innovation

​​Enter design thinking — a framework for generating solutions that starts with understanding issues within a real-world context. The focus is on crafting and testing solutions in a cyclical way that encourages creativity, teamwork and collaboration across multiple disciplines. Pope-Ruark said the idea is to rethink what "failure" means, since one failed solution could pave the way to a more successful one. 

"What's nice about design thinking is that it's meant to be cyclical," Pope-Ruark said. "For the purposes in the studio, if they're not failing, they're doing it wrong. It's not realistic to understand everything the first time. We're looking at problem-finding, and problem-framing."

The new studio course comes as Elon is increasingly integrating design thinking into the curricular and cocurricular experiences that students have during their time at the university. In September, Elon announced the launch of a design thinking initiative supported by an investment from trustee Cindy Citrone and her husband, Rob, who are the parents of an Elon student. The initiative includes the creation of Design Thinking Centers in at least three campus locations during the next few years. 

So what challenges will the students participating in the Design Thinking Studio for Social Innovation be working to address? The specific focus is going to be largely up to them, said Pope-Ruark, but more broadly, the goal will be to work directly with the Alamance County Wellness Collaborative to identify a social challenge the local community is facing and begin working to craft possible solutions. 

The Wellness Collaborative brings together multiple partners from throughout the county and is led by Impact Alamance, a local nonprofit foundation that supports child health and wellness, and Healthy Alamance, a nonprofit that produces an community health assessment. The collaborative is a 30-member coalition that includes of representatives from public health, planning, business, education, parks and recreation and nonprofit organizations focused on wellness initiatives for the county. 

Marcy Green, program director for Impact Alamance, said the collaborative is focused on creating better access to healthy environments, which can include opportunities for physical activity as well as access to healthy food. "We really want to see more partnerships in building these healthy spaces and healthy places in Alamance County rather than to work in silos," she said. 

The Wellness Collaborative will serve as a resource for the Elon students in the Design Thinking Studio to have access to the broad range of organizations that are working on a diverse set of health and social issues, Green said. "We're really starting as a resource and they can go in about any direction they want as far as health issues," Green said. "We're really open to the students' ideas, and the Wellness Collaborative's role is going to be connecting them to those resources."

One of those planning to participate in crafting those solutions is Maddie Chili '17, a computer science and communication design senior, who said she learned about the opportunity from Joel Hollingsworth, senior lecturer and chair in the Department of Computing Sciences, and Philip Motley, associate professor of communications. Hollingsworth and Motley along with Pope-Ruark and William Moner, assistant professor of communications, worked together to develop the Design Thinking Studio for Social Innovation.  

The chance to work in a start-up-type environment to create real-world solutions is appealing, she said, with the studio providing a "great transition" as she prepares to graduate and move into a work environment. "It's really great that this program will help us hone those skills that we've learned," she said. "It's going to be a challenge, and a great endpiece to my time here at Elon."

The first two to three weeks of the studio will be spent almost as a "boot camp" during which the students will be immersed in understanding design thinking and social innovation, with a focus on what it means to be a good citizen, Pope-Ruark said. The team will then begin to walk through the design thinking process for a problem to get more familiar with how that process works before identifying the challenges they will spend the semester tackling, she said. 

The end result could be anything from the development of an app, planning for a vertical garden or a community education program, for example, depending upon what the studio members choose to focus on, Pope-Ruark said. The students will be receiving a broad range of feedback from professors and Wellness Collaborative members along the way.

"We want it to be immersive and integrated and focused on something that makes a difference — to themselves, their peers, the university, and the community at-large," Pope-Ruark said. "We're pulling all those threads of Elon's mission together."

Owen Covington,
11/23/2016 2:15 PM