My first semester as an Assistant Professor of Innovation at NTNU’s Department of Engineering Design & Material (IPM) has exceeded all of my expectations. Coming from a management and entrepreneurship background, and having taught primarily at business schools, I didn’t really know what to expect. Would I be the only one in the room who cringed at the mere thought of algebraic geometry? Or, more importantly, would engineering students be too technically focused to care about the softer, touchy-feely skills I was about to introduce? These and other similar questions lingered in the back of my mind.
NTNU is the place to be
My gut feeling, however, kept telling me that Norway’s leading engineering university would be the perfect place to teach Design Thinking (DT), the multidisciplinary, human-centered methodology for innovation, which I’ve been involved with for almost a decade now. After all, it was at the Engineering Department of Stanford University where this methodology flourished; and not at the Business School (where I earned my graduate degree).
The bike course
It was with this backdrop that I started co-teaching TMM4121-Product Development, a.k.a. the “bike course,” along with Associate Professor Amund Skavhaug. During five activity-packed weeks this fall, I worked with approximately 180 engineering and Indøk students to help them implement DT into their team-based, bicycle-development projects. I plan to write a series of short blog posts here to share my experiences during my first months as a lecturer of innovation at NTNU.
During my first day at NTNU, I began by introducing my students to one of the foundations of DT: empathy—what it is, how we develop it,
and why it’s so important. Empathy to design thinkers is like brown cheese to Norwegians: it’s what makes us different. Design thinkers operate on the premise that you cannot design, produce, or market anything that is of great use to humanity without connecting with people at a deep, empathic level
Becoming an anthropologist for a while
The way we do this is through a systematic process of observing, interacting, and immersing in the human experience. This is nothing new of course. Anthropologists call this ethnographic research, which they have been perfecting for centuries. DT’s novelty is that it introduces these social-science techniques into the realms of engineering and business. By doing so, we are able to tap into latent human needs that are not immediately obvious through the traditional quantitative, analytical, and technical frameworks, which dominate modern education.
As a product developer, viscerally immersing oneself in people’s day-to-day existence is especially important to be able to gain an empathic perspective. After all, how can we really know what it’s like to be obese, for example, or to work in a particularly difficult job, or to suffer from a certain ailment, if we haven’t experienced it ourselves?
Teaching in skimpy clothes
That’s why during class two of the bike course, I decided to take a professional risk and showed up all spruced up in my road-biker gear—tight spandex and all! The message was this: You can’t fully understand what life is really like for a cyclist if you haven’t been one yourself (at least for a while). To my chagrin, it turned out that my brand new boss, Professor Torgeir Welo, had randomly decided to sit in on that particular session, which made giving an hour-long lecture in skin-tight shorts, helmet, and bike shoes even weirder than originally planned!
Students go all the way
During the very next class, I was a bit surprised to see that one of my students was being pushed
into the classroom in a wheel chair. At first, I thought that she had suffered an accident. Then towards the back of the large lecture hall, I saw a student sitting quietly in strange gear with large soundproof headsets, a bulky weight vest, military gloves, and awkward goggles. He looked like a cross between a suicide bomber and an airport maintenance guy. It wasn’t until the end of my lecture that it suddenly hit me: my students were immersing themselves in the lives of their users, i.e., handicapped people looking for better bicycles! It is these warm and fuzzy moments that make my job worthwhile.
Bias towards action
This leads me to another important component of my classes: learning by doing. At Stanford we like to say that design thinkers have a strong
bias towards action, and I try to implement this philosophy into everything I do as an educator. I believe deeply that the only way to learn innovation is by doing innovation.
Education in Norway, and indeed around the world, has become way too theoretical. Universities are overly obsessed with transmitting high-minded theories, frameworks, and models that may be intellectually stimulating, yet are many times void of reality and applicability. Students are thus starved for course content that helps them understand how the world really works, and permit them to test, fail, play, and learn in relevant contexts which are full of human meaning and relevance.
At the end of the day, the world is a highly ambiguous, fuzzy, and non-linear place, and it requires hands-on, realistic educational environments that replicate this. This will be the topic of my second blog post, so stay tuned!
And by the way, if you are an NTNU student and any of this sounded interesting to you, you might consider taking my new course, TMM4220-Innovation by Design Thinking, which I co-teach with Professor Martin Steinert (another Stanford guy) this fall.
– The Department of Engineering Design and Materials