Bellevue University: Thinking by Design

In Brian Kear and JoDee Goracke’s Thinking by Design class at Bellevue University, students do not submit a lengthy term paper or take a final exam. They are not graded on memorizing theories or formulas. Instead, students identify and solve problems in their community that impact them and the people around them. While Quest Forward was designed with an initial focus on high school, Bellevue University has shown that the principles and methodology can also apply to a college curriculum and classroom environment.

In Winter 2015, JoDee and Brian created a Quest Forward-based course called Thinking by Design. The course focuses on the design thinking process and skills, including empathy and problem-solving. This 12-week, semester-long course consists of 45 quests structured into 14 levels. They piloted the course in Spring 2016 and have since revised the quests, and have offered the course at the university four times. Students from a wide variety of majors take the course to fulfill an elective requirement. The most recent iteration of the course took place from August to November 2017.

First, students begin by exploring resources about creativity, innovation and the Design Thinking process. About three weeks into the course, students split into groups of 3-4 to identify a problem in their community. The quests encourage students to consider problems they see around themselves every day or people they know who are frequently impacted by a problem. Each group chooses a community problem to solve using the design thinking process and they work with this problem for the remainder of the course. Students interview people affected by the problem, reach out to experts in the field and experiment with various brainstorming techniques in order to ideate a solution.

Once each group reaches a proposed solution, they go through rapid prototyping exercises and take it through several rounds of testing and feedback. The course culminates in final presentations, where each group explains their community problem and solution to a panel that includes their mentors, other university professors and community partners that understand the issues that are being solved. The goal of the presentation is for students to gain support for how their solutions will improve their community and understand the business requirements for their solutions to gain traction and make an impact. Mentors encourage students to implement their solution in the community after the completion of the semester.

Students in the Fall 2017 iteration of the course addressed a wide range of meaningful community problems. One group created a plan to improve access to public transportation in Omaha by making the city’s complex bus system easier to navigate. They proposed to color-code each major bus route, similar to the Washington DC metro or Chicago public transit systems, and to advertise these colors clearly on each bus. Additionally, they proposed a free app to track the estimated arrival times for buses and provide clear information about routing and fares.

Another group’s community research showed that members of Omaha’s Latinx population are often evicted from rental properties for damaging and/or not taking proper care of the house or apartment. As a result, the Omaha Latinx population faces increasing difficulty when finding affordable places to live. The group proposed partnering with a government-funded nonprofit that helps Latinxs find housing and offering a course about home care to any evicted tenants. Tenants would earn a certificate for completing this course that landlords would have to recognize when reviewing a rental application.

Bellevue faculty member JoDee Goracke speculated that college students often feel that they cannot work toward achieving big goals such as starting a business or improving their community until they earn their degree or take specific, high-level courses. For this reason, she believes the Thinking by Design course empowers students to break through those walls and make a direct impact in their community sooner rather than later.

Brian and JoDee will continue to co-mentor the Thinking by Design course at Bellevue University in the Spring and Fall of 2018 and 2019. In fact, their new semester just started on March 12, 2018! They look forward to each iteration of the course because, as Brian puts it, “there are limitless options of community topics for kids to choose from and solve.” The university has also expressed interest in developing more courses through Quest Forward.

Two mentors at Mtakuja Secondary School in Moshi, Tanzania also ran Thinking by Design concurrently with this Bellevue University class. We will describe that experience in a separate post soon!