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Shaking Up the Status Quo Through Design Thinking

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By Sam Chafe

What if you were given the opportunity to redesign a local community? Or what if you were asked to redesign a piece of the American government?

These are questions that are being asked to students of Ron Walters’ Design Thinking Unlimited class. In this unique educational offering, Walters wants to teach his students to be willing to take on the "wicked problems" of the world.

“I want my students to take on problems so big, so undefined, that people typically ignore them and say 'oh well, there's nothing we can do,'” says Walters.

A 1970 alumnus of the university, Walters believes in design thinking as an alternative to critical thinking. While both have their place, design thinking embraces ambiguous problems and favors innovation, while critical thinking is more defined and precedent based.

Senior architecture student Matt Boker says Walters has his students use the “four steps of design.” These steps are discovery, alternative planning, analyze and decide, and implementation.

"I want to incorporate design-thinking into the curriculum at the university," says Walters. "The class promotes a new way of thinking – a much more efficient way of thinking – because it teaches students to use their intuition and their instincts as well as analysis to solve problems."

His class is designed to encourage students to take a problem-solving approach to problems of the world.

On the first day of fall semester, Walters asked his students to redesign congress. He believes that Congress isn’t as effective as it could be, and challenged his students to come up with alternative designs not requiring any constitutional amendments.

“We redesigned Congress in only two weeks,” says Liz Jernegan, who took the course last fall semester. "One of the things that we came up with was taking the representatives and the senators out of D.C. and putting them back into the states that they are representing."

"If the Idaho congressmen and women were located here, they could be more in tune with the current education struggles of the state," Jernegan notes.

This semester Walters has a new challenge for his students.

“One of our projects was to solve involuntary homelessness in America,” says Boker.

An example of involuntary homelessness is when people are forced into homelessness when they lose their house due to foreclosures.

“We had to look at homelessness from a ‘pre’ standpoint to determine the causes leading to involuntary homelessness,” says Boker.

The class determined that people become homeless this way because of a lack of networking, or a lack of a financial family background. Once they got to the root of the issue, they were better able to formulate solutions.

In addition to thinking outside the box, Walters strives to create a multi-disciplinary experience that crosses traditional classroom lines.

"I believe that students need to be exposed to working with people from multiple disciplines," he says. “This could also offer opportunities for efficiencies in various programs at the University.”

By promoting a trans-disciplinary environment, Walters notes, it allows the students to work better with others when they enter the real world. A class like this allows students to broaden their horizons and think differently and more efficiently.

“Some people do everything in excel spread sheets while others use paper,” says Boker. “We had to settle in and harness our disciplinary talents.”

Jernegan said the class was exhausting, but incredible, and that she would not have traded it for anything in the world.

“Good design is applicable everywhere,” said Jernegan.

This semester is the second time the class had been offered at the university. The class runs for eight weeks starting at the beginning of the semester.