Dartmouth Engineer » Engineering by Design

March 23, 2010
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Design in the Age of AbundanceWhat a great idea – Using improv to develop design-based thinking.

This article highlights Peter Robbie’s Design Thinking class at Thayer Engineering School, which acts as an effective reminder of the powerful role that the arts can play in rigorous education.

As you read the article, Robbie points out that in an age of abundance such as ours, human-centered design is essential to business success.  His ideas are completely in line with Dan Pink in A Whole New Mind.

As you read the article, check out the “Need for Design” and “Design is a Process” sections.  Robbie does an outstanding  job of describing how improv develops the skills necessary for human-centered design.  By acting out and anticipating human needs through improv, students start to think about the needs of consumers when designing products.

Acting out?  What an exciting way to increase student engagement and appeal to kinesthetic learners, both effective teaching strategies according to Dr. Marzano.

In looking back to Dan Pink, this idea sounds a lot like empathy, and if you recall the Dan Pink interview that I posted, Pink argues that design without empathy is “mediocre design.”  Apparently Professor Robbie agrees.

Another point of Robbie’s  concerns some of the pitfalls of brainstorming.  He talks about self-censorship and ridicule as limiting factors in traditional brainstorming.  But by having students act out scenes and improvise, these limitations of traditional brainstorming disappear.  Students are less likely to censor their ideas, and they will be much more hesitant to ridicule others.

Reading this article made me think: How can I do it in my classroom?  I began to specifically think about my international studies class.  I have a student who is in theater, could he help us to lead an improv session?

I think I will look at one of our current projects, lets say expanding a local plastics factory into Mexico.  Then we could improvise about the difficulties faced in that project. Specifically we could physically act out some of the cultural barriers that might be encountered.  We could follow that improv session with a brainstorming session that covered the same issues.

In my American History class, I could see us improvising a specific scene, lets say passing over the Berlin Wall.  (I think that our theater teacher would be an excellent resource for this project in addition to my theater kids)

Then students could brain storm and draw that experience out on the windows. Using the story board template students could create a story about one person’s experience crossing the wall.  If you wanted to add some technology, you could use Photo Story or Google Docs to create a movie version.  You could even create a Glogster poster promoting the movie.  What level of Bloom’s Taxonomy would that accomplish?  With all of the designing and developing of ideas, your students would hit multiple levels, all the way up to the “creative” level of the new Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Of course that would be a pretty involved project, but parts of it could be used here and there as small upgrades to my current lesson plans.  But overall I think the use of improv in the classroom is an outstanding upgrade.  I think that the students in Peter Robbie’s design class have a definite advantage over those engineering students who have only taken “traditional” design courses.  I want my students to have that same advantage.

Dartmouth Engineer » Engineering by Design.

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