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This university is replicating a Silicon Valley start-up environment for lessons

Allison Butler, the director of Bryant University’s IDEA program, believes students can benefit from “design thinking”

Bryant University professor Allison Butler working with students on a technique called the “importance-difficulty matrix.” This is one of the critical thinking exercises that helps students identify the most promising solutions of the many they have brainstormed.Bryant University

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At the start of the spring semester each year, every freshman at Bryant University returns to campus before regular classes begin and takes part in the school’s Innovation and Design Experience for All, or IDEA, program. It’s an intense design boot-camp, now heading into its tenth year, and aims to replicate a “Silicon Valley start-up environment.”

For the next three days, students are expected to develop skills that will prepare them for academic and post-graduate life. On the first day, they go through an introduction to “design thinking,” but for the next two days they head into a “high-energy, low-sleep, design-thinking adventure,” according to Allison Butler, a psychology professor and who leads the IDEA program. They brainstorm, generate ideas, and collaborate to find solutions to specific problems.

And for its innovative approach, the program has been recognized for its “learning-centered teaching” by the Davis Educational Foundation and Hanover Research.


Q: How does the IDEA program work?

Butler: This is our tenth year conducting this program and we have a community of about 8,000 Bryant graduates who have been trained in the program, which is essentially teaching innovation, creativity, collaboration, and design thinking (the actual methodology). They work in teams to solve innovation challenges. Each year, we develop 35 to 40 different challenges, which are typically real world tests that we are facing at the time of the program.

The students get to vote on the challenges that they would be working on from an array of topics. And it’s really a boot camp type of experience where it’s experimental, immersive learning from brainstorming to prototype building.


Q: What kinds of challenges would be posed this year?

Butler: There might be one group that will work on the idea of how we reimagine work and “the future of work.” They would be looking at how many employees are still working remotely, there are nontraditional working hours, and what remote settings really look like.

Another group could be working on supporting mental health, financial literacy, attracting women to STEM academics and careers, making sure young people are using social media in safe and healthy ways, and art in the community (such as bringing art or the performing arts into public spaces or to underserved communities as a force for social change).

But there’s a range of subjects we look at; from health care, business, education, children’s sciences, race and inclusion, behavioral and mental health, sustainability, and so many others.

Q: What is ‘design thinking?’

Butler: It’s a method or a framework for creative problem solving. It’s something that has been popularized by IDEO, which is one of the nation’s leading design firms. It’s what any leading company is using, such as places like Apple, Google, Nike, Disney, and Patagonia, and they make sure that they are creating user experiences, products, and services that truly meet people’s needs. They aren’t just innovating for the sake of innovation. But when you use the design thinking process, you take a deep, empathetic look at who the people are that they are designing for. It’s really human-centered design.


It unfolds in five phases: empathize, then they craft some insights to those relevant to the challenge, brainstorming, they build prototypes, and then build a 3D model and start testing their idea.

Q: Can you give an example of how that would work?

Butler: For example, if they had a question about young people’s healthy use of social media, they would need to do a deep dive, do some interviewing, observe how people interact with it, understand their habits, and then find solutions. But they only have three days and two nights.

Q: How can they start testing the idea?

Butler: We have a ton of alumni that return to campus that work in industries that are related to the challenges. They are able to give the students feedback and push them so it’s not just a one-and-done mentality. After receiving feedback from alum, they revise their product and share only what they think is most promising at a trade show.

It’s almost like an entrepreneurial fair, or a Shark Tank style pitch. We have C-Suite level executives from various industries, leaders and nonprofits, and others that come in where the students can give their final pitch to.

Alexa Gagosz can be reached at Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.