A Case of Solution-Inspired Design: Addressing a “Real World” Need
Building a collaboration to solve a specific problem
Some collaborations begin with individuals who want to work together, while others begin with an idea. Sometimes, individuals form collaborations to execute a particular solution to a problem or a need. In these cases, staying focused on the importance and necessity of the solution can help individuals overcome barriers inherent in the process.
The faculty of a small college in the Northeast of the United States faced a challenge. The new Dean of Academic Affairs, recently hired, introduced an innovative idea. He proposed that in order to graduate, each student would spend a semester learning outside of the classroom—applying technical skills and theoretical knowledge to the “real world.” He argued that the “ivory tower of academia” does not teach students to be flexible, adaptable, or collaborative. Rather than simply relying on tuition, he asked the Office of Institutional Research to survey graduates from the past 10 years. The findings uncovered an alarming trend. On the whole, alums did not feel well-prepared for the workforce—the “real world.” With the goal of creating meaningful college experiences for students (and his desire to make his “mark” on the campus), the Dean asked a group of faculty members to form a committee to work on this program. He expected that the to-be-fashioned program would eventually become a requirement for all students.
Professor Jordan, Head of the Computer Science department, chaired the committee. He was delighted to take on this assignment since he had recently been approached by a technology company with the request that he develop a student internship program. “What if,” he asked, “we could design something that went beyond the typical internship and that really helps to fill the gaps our graduates have pointed out?” Professors from other departments were dubious—what could their students learn in a technology company? Professor Jordan asked professors from the Economics, English and Biology departments (the other three largest majors in the college) if they would consider joining the program. They reluctantly agreed, though they were dubious that anything would come of this idea. In a sense, they felt as if they had nothing to lose.
The first goal of the committee was to identify key areas that their program could address. Each faculty member had his and her own idea about the focus for this innovative program: the Economics professor was most interested in the team-based project experience; the English professor advocated for cross-disciplinary engagement; and the biology professor was set on problem-solving skills. Professor Jordan tried to get the group to understand how the program could address all three of the areas, but each seemed unwilling to budge.
Professor Jordan convinced the three faculty members that as a committee, they needed someone from the outside (a disinterested individual) to help the committee members reach an agreement that would satisfy the Dean’s charge and would also be a positive solution for the students. With the students’ needs in mind, the external facilitator suggested to the faculty that they secure information from current students as well about their perspectives of the planned program. The facilitator asked students from each department to talk about the kinds of experiences they thought would be beneficial. With this feedback, the faculty developed a plan which combined all of the interests and foci. More important, each member of the committee was confident that the plan would fill a void for students.
After a couple of months working together on the program, the committee pitched their idea to the tech company executives; these leaders embraced the concept wholeheartedly as a model of active learning from which everyone could benefit. Faculty worked closely with the company executives to develop a program that would pair two students from each of three departments (Economics, Computer Science, English, and Biology) and pose for them a challenge actually faced by the tech company. The task might draw on one or another of their disciplines, but they would have to work together and pool their collective wisdom to find a solution. Further, the challenge was intentionally ambiguous. This multi-faceted challenge was quite unlike the usual “unfulfilling” classroom tasks the students had described.
As the coordinator at the tech company explained, “We make our interns struggle at the start; we take them out of their comfort zone and take off the constraints—that’s how our employees work.” Faculty and students liked the idea of this ambiguity, though they also worried about how students coming from the highly structured educational environment would navigate this relatively uncharted terrain. Dr. Jordan explained that for students, the experience could be terrifying at first, but they would quickly learn to “spread their wings” and test out new ideas. He said, “It’s all about getting them used to working in that uncertainty and acknowledging your limits—that’s what our students need to thrive in the real world!”
After the first round of group projects, it became clear that students saw the benefits of the experience. One economics student explained, “At the beginning, it was almost like we didn’t speak the same language! There was a lot of push and pull over who would be in the lead, and no one told us how to organize the group. It took a lot of negotiation just to appoint a team leader.” An English major concurred, “Over the semester, we came to understand the benefit of the other disciplines and how we could best complement each other. I never would have gotten that in a group of other English majors! Plus, I now see that there is a value to the skills I bring to the table in a field I never would have thought to explore before.”
Not only did the committee come up with a solution to their own collaborative challenges by engaging an outside facilitator to help negotiate independent interests. They worked hard to develop a positive solution to what students needed and wanted from their own education.