Design Thinking Students Catalysts are hard at work creating interactive experiences online and on campus

Even though they are unable to work close together, the catalysts are still determined to help their peers implement design thinking practices in all aspects of their lives.

The area above Pandora’s Pies is full of creative potential. Connected to the Maker Hub, the space is decorated with bright colors and is accented with walls of whiteboards and plenty of windows. This is the Center for Design Thinking, which offers space for students to do their homework, design prototypes, or problem-solve with their peers.

The Center for Design Thinking is located next to the Maker Hub, which makes for easy collaborations.

The Center is also the headquarters for a dozen Design Thinking Student Catalysts, a diverse group of students who are determined to help their peers utilize the tools of design thinking in their academic and personal lives. The catalysts can apply as early as their first year and are able to work with the Center until they graduate.

Initially, design thinking may be seen as a problem-solving method, but the student catalysts are committed to practicing this process beyond the classroom. The catalysts have led discussions, presented in front of peers and faculty, and have even created workshops that can be customized to different class curriculums.

Director of Design Thinking Danielle Lake describes the practice as, “the process and set of tools we use to find out which problems are challenging us, and what we can do to address those problems. There is not one certain way to solve things.”

While Lake believes that everyone should implement design thinking into their academic and personal lives, the catalysts are a particular group of students who have shown a special interest in further developing their design thinking skills. The catalysts are selected based on their willingness to iterate, or the ability to continue trying after failure.

“We are looking for students who are willing to take risks and be vulnerable,” says Lake. “We have a team that looks out for each other, and they care just as much about team growth as they do individual growth.”

The program places a lot of emphasis on “failing forward.” They offer a workshop called “Flop Shop,” which can help teach students how to reframe their failures in order to move forward. The workshop provides valuable tools to learn how to build resilience and grit in the face of defeat.

A donation from Trustee Cindy Citrone and her husband, Rob, sparked the creation of the program about four years ago. Prior to that, a lot of interest was shown from faculty and administrators, who attended workshops at universities that already offered design thinking programs. The investment from the Citrone family has made possible the creation of many new student engagement opportunities in design thinking. Elon has generated programs that integrate design thinking in the classroom and co-curricular workshops that allow students to use these tools in their personal lives, as well.

The gift also sparked the creation of the catalyst program. Although the program is still fairly new, the student catalysts have already created effective and impactful workshops.

Soniyah Robinson ’23

Soniyah Robinson ‘23 started as a storytelling lead in the center last year, and she applied as a design catalyst in the hope of furthering her work in combining social justice issues and design thinking. The aim of design thinking is to change the systems that are no longer working in our society, and Robinson wanted to bring recognition to the injustices that so many are currently facing.

As a result, Robinson partnered with the Center for Race, Ethnicity, and Diversity Education to create an implicit bias workshop.

“I wanted people to come to this workshop and feel included, because implicit bias is a very broad thing. We have people on campus that are international students and students that come from all around the country,” explains Robinson. “We all wanted to make sure that people who come to this workshop feel like their perspective is included.”

Robinson faced difficulties while creating the workshop, but she credits her design thinking experience to being able to work through her problems.

“In design thinking, you don’t go from A to B and then to C,” She explains, “You go from A to B and then back to A. A lot of the process is rethinking things.”

As a catalyst, students often facilitate workshops weekly. However, when they are not running these workshops, the catalysts work directly with Lake, who assists them in further developing their skills and maintaining the professional relationships they have made in the program.

Student Catalysts think of unique solutions to everyday problems.

This year, the catalysts are not able to gather in the Center for Design Thinking as they normally would, but they have not let the pandemic slow them down. The catalysts have designed creative ways in which students can still practice design thinking. This includes leading virtual sessions and conducting physically distant workshops outside.

“They are really living out the design thinking process to reach everyone where they are at,” says Lake.

In addition to their modified workshops, the Center for Design Thinking has partnered with the Maker Hub to offer an outdoor Pop Up and Play Event each Tuesday and Thursday in the tent next to Pandora’s Pies.

“It is a great way for students to engage with the center in a COVID-safe environment,” says Maggie Cox ‘23.  “It’s a really low stakes event.”

From 3:30 to 5:30, anyone is welcome to grab a take and make kit, which in the past have included supplies for handmade face masks and stress relief balls. They also offer the option to stay and play, where students are encouraged to work with the catalysts to discover their personal play style.

“Everyone plays differently,” says Lake. “Discovering your personal play style could improve your problem-solving skills and your ability to focus.”

For students who have a deeper interest in design thinking, there are many upcoming opportunities to get involved with the Center. Later this semester, the Center will be opening up applications for new catalysts on the Elon Job Network. They will also be offering a one-credit course during the winter term, where students will have the opportunity to experience design thinking on a larger scale.

“The tools offered in this course will look powerful on a transcript,” says Lake. “This is a great chance to develop these skills, as so many businesses and nonprofits are engaging these strategies.”

Overall, the catalysts are extremely proud of the work they have done so far and are looking forward to assisting more students with their own design thinking projects.

“It really is a great process,” says Cox, who plans to utilize her skills while earning her master’s degree in aerospace engineering. “It can help you solve any problem, whether it’s related to your classes, projects, or your life.”

More information can be found about upcoming events and workshops on the Elon by Design website, by contacting Danielle Lake (, or by visiting the Pop Up and Play Events.