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OpenIDEO in the Classroom

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Tracy Brandenburg, Ph.D. is a researcher, writer and founder of The Wells College Innovation Lab. She recently incorporated OpenIDEO’s Local Food Challenge into her design thinking elective for undergraduate students. Here she shares her story of using OpenIDEO in the classroom.
As a long-time professor at Wells College in Aurora, NY, I’ve learned that I can’t always expect my students to be passionate about the same topics that I am. So my goals are broader – to attempt to create a transformational experience that will inspire, ignite curiosity, or even just help students come one step closer to finding their place in this world. Over the last semester, thanks to OpenIDEO, achieving those goals is now incredibly easy.
But first some background: in early 2011 the Wells College Innovation Lab first opened its doors, with the goal of training young people in innovation and design thinking. Having studied at the Stanford the year before and getting bitten by the design thinking bug myself, I knew this way of seeing the world and problem solving could open up new possibilities for my students. So I was thrilled to help launch the Innovation Lab and to create my innovation and design thinking elective.

The Innovation Lab at Wells College
In our Innovation class at Wells College, my fellow team teacher and I decided to assign an OpenIDEO challenge for the final exam. Although we didn’t have any advanced knowledge of the topic, we ended up participating in the challenge “How might we better connect food production and consumption?” The assignment was for students to work in teams on the OpenIDEO challenge and use the design thinking methodology taught in class to come up with a solution. In addition, students were required to post their solution on OpenIDEO and communicate and interact with other online participants. To help inform the students’ work and validate their initial prototypes, the students also reached out to a group of local farmers. They asked questions, gathered qualitative insights, and got feedback from this key audience as they developed their ideas.

Students prototyping
On the day of the final, teams presented their mastery of design thinking by illustrating how they applied empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, and testing to the OpenIDEO challenge. The atmosphere was more like that of a party than a final exam as each team enthusiastically pointed out the posts that the global community had submitted about their ideas. One group excitedly announced, “We were made part of a virtual team!” And the enthusiasm for this project continued long after the semester ended; I received emails: “I actually want to implement my project!”; “I want to work for IDEO!” And my favorite, “Thank you for giving us this final exam.” Thank you? Somebody pinch me. So here are a few things I learned about what OpenIDEO can bring to the classroom:
OpenIDEO educates young people on important social issues; it moves them to deeply care about a topic with which they weren’t previously engaged. Our specific challenge about food and where it comes from was not a subject these 18 and 19 year-olds really knew much about. For them, tropical fruit has always been available in upstate New York in the middle of winter, and why shouldn’t it be? Only through classroom and online dialogue did they come to understand the value of bringing together food producers and consumers. And once they did, they genuinely wanted to do something about it.
Everyone wins. Students love competition, and in the “game” of OpenIDEO, everyone wins. They “win” by simply receiving positive feedback and praise. This strengthens their confidence, validates their work, and motivates them to want to participate in social design. The positivity of OpenIDEO and the fact that someone is practically guaranteed to comment on your work in a positive way is amazing.
The opportunity to share their ideas and connect with a global audience was the number one thing my students responded to. The online, social networking space is kind of their domain already, so OpenIDEO is really working within the student’s own medium. We are not asking them to read books and write papers, we are asking them to step into a world that they already understand and enjoy.
To my fellow educators, I invite you to jump into OpenIDEO, at any stage of the process, and know that whether you teach innovation or not, you are educating students on the greatest challenges of our times while simultaneously showing them humanity at its best. And in doing this, there is goodness, satisfaction, and so much fun.
For specific tips on how to use OpenIDEO in the classroom, including the grading rubric that we developed to assess student contributions, feel free to contact the Wells College Innovation teaching team. Also, be sure to join the conversation over in the OpenIDEO User Forums, where educators, students and other community members can ask questions and share stories about using OpenIDEO in university settings.
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