Post-it Note pads in hues of green, blue, pink and orange paired with confident and bold Sharpie markers: these are the tools of the trade for design thinking—an innovative approach to problem-solving being taught across campus this year by MSOE’s University Innovation Fellows.

Leading the effort are Nicholas Hennigan, Tara Rahmani and Sabrina Stangler who count themselves among the first UIF cohort at MSOE. The UIF program, which is run by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d. school) aims to empower students to become agents of change at their university. UIF candidates are nominated by MSOE faculty and selected through an application process. The Kern Family Foundation sponsors the MSOE fellows.

Hennigan, Rahmani and Stangler participated in six weeks of intensive training, then spent a week at Stanford University where they were immersed in design thinking workshops. The UIF Silicon Valley meetup they attended included a trip to Google and meetings with Fellows from around the world, Stanford mentors, and leaders in academia and industry.

“We learned a lot about how to encourage and inspire students, how to improve the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on MSOE’s campus, how to build a stronger community on campus by uniting different disciplines, and we grew as individuals,” said Rahmani, a senior in industrial engineering. Hennigan and Stangler are juniors in mechanical and software engineering, respectively.

The Fellows identified several strategies to expand innovation and entrepreneurship on campus and in the community. As a first step, they set out to change the way students, faculty and staff approach problem-solving through workshops and activities around design thinking.

“As a community of mostly engineers, it’s common that we approach situations with very linear thinking,” said Dr. Nadya Shalamova, UIF faculty champion and user experience and communication design program director. “The Fellows are working to break the linear thinking model and encourage their classmates not to be afraid of open-ended problems.”

University Innovation Fellows hosted seven design thinking workshops of various sizes throughout campus. “Not only have these workshops helped me to grow as a person, they have given other students and entrepreneurs the opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and discover ideas they didn’t know they could have,” said Stangler.

Most recently, the Fellows put on their first large-scale public workshop, “The Innovator’s Toolkit: Design Thinking,” as part of Startup Milwaukee Week. The purpose of Startup Milwaukee Week is to connect, educate and celebrate entrepreneurship in Southeast Wisconsin with programming that showcases the community’s emerging companies while highlighting the resources available to foster support for entrepreneurs on their journey. The “Innovator’s Toolkit Workshop” was sponsored by Northwestern Mutual and The Hive, an organization that offers shared coworking office space for Milwaukee startups.

About 45 people attended the workshop, during which they were challenged to think of a problem, find an opportunity in that problem, brainstorm possible solutions, and eventually test them. Along the way, Fellows offered examples of constructive approaches to brainstorming and other tips to think outside of the box.

“Everyone needs to have an equal voice in brainstorming,” Hennigan said. “That’s why everyone gets Post-it Notes and a Sharpie—by giving each group member an equal opportunity to contribute, it reduces the effect of one group member controlling all the ideas.”

Beyond design thinking, the Fellows set out to improve communication between faculty, staff and students. Faculty shared their hobbies with students during a “CommUNITY Fair” organized by the Fellows. They also facilitated Welcome Week ice-breaker activities for freshmen called “Stokes,” to get students excited for the upcoming academic year and encourage interaction.

Freshmen in the Civil and Architectural Engineering and Construction Management Department participated in Stokes as part of their Welcome Week activities and it seemed to have had an impact. Dr. Blake Wentz, CAECM Department chair, noted that grades and retention rate for the freshman seminar class were improved over last year.

The UIF program is ongoing—and three new members were selected this fall. The two cohorts will work in concert to achieve complementary objectives.

“UIF has the big Silicon Valley meetup in the spring and then schools can host a regional meetup,” Rahmani said. “Our plan is to host a regional meetup in the spring for fellows and non-fellows.”