This year, the WomenLead Program piloted a new signature experience for students that gave them an opportunity to collaborate through a full cycle of the design thinking process. Led by WomenLead faculty member and Associate Director of the H. J. Russell Center for Entrepreneurship Dr. Isabelle Monlouis, the spring and fall WomenLead student cohorts – approximately 250 students representing more than 50 majors from across Georgia State – participated in a new Design Thinking Challenge that focused on addressing food insecurity on college campuses. Students enrolled during the spring semester completed the challenge in-person on campus last March – just before Georgia State moved classes online due to the COVID-19 pandemic – while students enrolled in the fall semester collaborated virtually to complete the challenge.
Why design thinking? As a problem-solving process developed by the Stanford d.school and used by leading corporations around the world, design thinking privileges the experience of the user being designed for. It uses a five-step process that involves empathizing with the user, using insights from the empathy stage to define the problem, ideating, rapidly prototyping, and, finally, testing.
“Design thinking is about asking new questions in a different way, which leads us to generating more innovative solutions,” Dr. Monlouis explained.
To prepare for the challenge, students screened “Hungry To Learn,” a 2019 documentary produced by Soledad O’Brien that follows four colleges students as they navigate food insecurity. This helped students develop empathy for the user by learning about their experiences and got them ready to begin defining their question based on insights from the empathy stage.
Students also learned about the grim data suggesting just how prevalent food (and housing) insecurity really is among their peer group. For example, the 2019 #RealCollege Survey Report – the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students created by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice – describes the results of a survey administered in the fall of 2018 at 123 two- and four-year institutions across the United States in which nearly 86,000 students were surveyed. Among their findings were the following:
45% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days
56% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year
17% of respondents were homeless in the previous year
Additionally, students learned about university resources like the Panther’s Pantry. They learned that in 2014, a group of Georgia State graduate nutrition students established the Panther’s Pantry after a school survey revealed 68% of students at the university were food insecure at some point while enrolled. Additional studies have shown that food insecurity among college students is linked to lower graduation rates and ultimately undermines their ability to succeed. (Panther’s Pantry Annual Report, August 2018 – August 2019)
WomenLead provided craft materials for students to use during the ideating and prototyping stages.
Students also became practitioners in design thinking by completing an online two-hour course to earn the IBM Design Thinking Practitioner badge, which they posted on their LinkedIn profiles to show their proficiency in this in-demand skillset. As design thinkers, these WomenLead students have been trained to address uncertainty, work within constraints, and create human-centered solutions. Their transferrable skills now include design research, collaboration, ideation, storytelling, and synthesis.
Cameryn Rogers, a WomenLead student from the spring semester, shared how she leveraged insights she learned from participating in the Design Thinking Challenge while working as an essential worker for Chick-Fil-A this past summer:
“Since we’re a fast food restaurant that focuses on taking customer service to the next level, my team and I have had to get creative with how we let our guests know that we care even though our service model is limited to drive-thru only right now. One of the projects my team and I did involved writing encouraging messages on the Chick-fil-A bags for our guests. The messages would say, ‘We love you,’ ‘You are loved,’ or ‘You are a blessing.’ Our goal is to let customers know that we still care even though we can’t have close-contact interactions. This relates to one of the biggest lessons I learned from WomenLead – specifically through my experience participating in the Design Thinking Challenge when I completed IBM’s online Enterprise Design Thinking Practitioner course. This course discussed leading with empathy and understanding before attempting to create a solution to a specific problem. Writing encouraging messages to customers at Chick-fil-A meant that we had to empathize with people who could be dealing with one of several different situations occurring throughout the pandemic. We had to put ourselves in their shoes and think about which statements would encourage them during this challenging time.”
Following the success of the first Design Thinking Challenge this past spring, WomenLead developed a follow-up learning module designed to continue students’ engagement with the design thinking process. Part two of the WomenLead curriculum’s Design Thinking Challenge – centered around “designing equality” – was designed to mark the centennial of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment this year and was delivered virtually during both the spring and fall semesters. Designing Equality provided them with an opportunity to apply design thinking to come up with creative solutions to the disparity in female representation across all levels of leadership in the workplace. Students responded to the following question: What is one step businesses can take to provide women and men with equal access to career-advancing management experiences and opportunity? Through online collaboration with their peers, students thought through the phenomenon of the “broken rung” identified in the 2019 Women In The Workplace Report produced by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company and proposed changes that organizations can make to create greater equality. Students’ proposals addressed why their solutions matter, how they will execute them, and what the potential outcomes will be.
Researched and written by Charleen Wilcox.