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Creativity with Compassion

Human-centered design thinking approach is a core part of the AUC educational experience

By Katie Marie

By integrating design thinking into the curriculum, AUC is teaching students to approach complicated problems with a sense of empathy, creativity and resilience, explained Hoda Mostafa, professor of practice and director of the University’s Center for Learning and Teaching (CLT).  

“Design thinking is a mindset, a way of thinking about the world and understanding the complex systems in which challenges exist, how we as humans interact with our environment and how our behaviors influence different solutions,” said Mostafa. “It is one of the most effective, human-centered ways to approach complex problems.” 

Design thinking is a methodology used by Fortune 500 companies, including Apple and J.P. Morgan, to transform their way of operating and develop innovative, customer-centric products and services. International development institutions, such as the World Food Programme and UNESCO, have employed it to create policies and programs that effectively address poverty, gender inequality and other complex global challenges. 

“There’s a lot of validation that this approach, this design mindset, actually works,” said Fady Morcos, assistant provost for innovative learning experiences, citing a study of 300 companies by McKinsey & Company, which found that over five years, companies that employed design thinking into their operations financially outperformed those that did not. 

Naturally, a growing number of educational institutions, including AUC, are seeking to train their students as design thinkers. In 2019, AUC was inaugurated into the Global Design Thinking Alliance, a network of educational institutions furthering the development and application of this tool in teaching and learning. 

“Design thinking aligns with and reinforces liberal arts education,” explained Aziza Ellozy ’64, ’67, associate provost for transformative learning and teaching. “It is a methodology that uses the skills and knowledge that a liberal arts education offers. It teaches students to come up with creative ideas and then focus on turning them into tangible solutions.”

AUC faculty and staff design thinking coaching team, 2020-2021

How Does It Work?

Design thinking is a problem-based, experiential method that has its roots in the area of creative studies and the creative problem-solving approach first introduced by Osborn and Parnes in the 1960s. It was then further developed at Stanford University’s design school and spread to the private sector through partnerships with companies such as IDEO, Nike, SAP and IBM. Over the years, different design thinking frameworks have been developed to suit the needs of various sectors, organizations and challenges, but all of them share a set of common steps. 

“It starts with the ‘empathize’ stage, where you unpack the challenge and context around it. You collect a lot of data through engagement with your user,” noted Mostafa. 

Morcos added that what “sets design thinking apart from other problem-solving techniques is that it is human-centered. It’s all about getting out there and understanding people’s behavior by observing them in their natural environments so you can design something that is simple and easily adopted.”

After gaining a strong understanding of the broader context, the next step is to define the problem, keeping the user perspective in mind. Only then can you begin to ideate and brainstorm solutions.

“Ideation is about creative thinking,” said Morcos. “After you’ve developed your understanding of the problem, you start thinking of crazy ideas for solving it. Creative thinking approaches encourage students to come up with many ideas to maximize possibilities. Then they use convergence techniques to select the most promising ones and test them.”

Once a path is chosen, a design thinker will build a prototype and test it by seeing how the user interacts with it to understand how it can be changed or improved. “It’s an iterative process,” Mostafa stressed. “You move back and forth between the stages until you have evidence that you’re in the right direction.” 

Ellozy emphasized that “the design thinking process helps students tackle complex problems and confidently brainstorm and test out new ideas. It prepares them to fail and start again. These valuable skills will help them succeed in the professional world after graduating
from AUC.”

AUC’s Journey with Design Thinking 

With the conviction that creative thinking is central to liberal arts education, design thinking at AUC began as an attempt to infuse more creativity into the undergraduate curriculum. In 2014, CLT, led by Mostafa, took on the challenge of designing a course for the Core Curriculum specifically focused on the subject. 

School of Business Design Thinking Sprint, AUC’s Research and Creativity Conference, Spring 2022
School of Business Design Thinking Sprint, AUC’s Research and Creativity Conference, Spring 2022

“The first iteration of the course included a module on the creative problem-solving framework, but we felt it wasn’t giving students the effective tools to be innovative. We started looking for ways to improve it and felt that design thinking was the missing piece,” recalled Morcos, who previously worked at CLT. 

CLT faculty members then began developing their own skills as design thinkers and testing their knowledge. “For the creative thinking course, we started reaching out to what we call ‘challenge partners,’ asking them to give us problems that students could develop innovative solutions for using the design thinking framework,” said Morcos. 

They also sought external support from the D-School at the Hasso Plattner Institute based in Germany in training design thinking leaders at AUC. The institute has supported the development of design schools and design thinking programs at educational institutions across the world. “This was a two-year partnership to build capacity within CLT specifically and AUC more broadly to integrate design thinking into the curriculum. Now we have six faculty and staff members trained as design thinking coaches,” Mostafa said. 

AUC’s partnership with the D-School at the Hasso Plattner Institute culminated in the first Global Design Thinking Week in Egypt hosted at AUC in July 2018. Since then, CLT has continued to support faculty members in adopting design thinking as a classroom tool, in line with the center’s broader mission to support teaching excellence and innovation at AUC. “Our aim is to offer faculty a broad toolkit for creating a more engaging learning experience for students,” said Mostafa. “We know that experiential learning is an extremely effective teaching tool, and combined with design thinking, it teaches real-world skills that students need to succeed.” 

Meanwhile, Morcos is presenting students with more opportunities to put their design thinking skills to the test in experiential contexts.

“We are building a network of industry and societal partners to create real-life challenges that are integrated into the student learning experience,” he said. “By training students to apply design thinking as an innovation framework to solve such challenges, we are equipping them with 21st-century skills that are highly needed in the employment market and society.”

Testimonials

“The workshop was inspiring and different than what I expected. We weren’t just given theoretical concepts, but we also had to apply them immediately without knowing what the next step would be. In my team, we had graduate students, a senior, a sophomore, an architect, a doctor and a businessman. The different backgrounds and experiences each person brought were essential for brainstorming.”

Shimaa Heikal (MSc ’22)
PhD Student, AUC’s Institute of Global Health and Human Ecology
Participant, AUC-Mountain View Design Thinking Challenge, 2021

“We conducted short interviews with people living in compounds, including children, mothers and newlyweds. We then identified the common needs, concerns and interests of these people. From there, we brainstormed solutions and built a prototype. As an educator, my role is usually limited to the classroom within walls. But when we understood the problems facing stakeholders, everyone in the workshop realized we could all relate and that all disciplines and specialties are needed at the table. This multidisciplinary approach is the strongest side of design thinking.”

Amina Sabour ’18
Graduate Student, International and Comparative Education 
Participant, AUC-Mountain View Design Thinking Challenge, 2021

“The sessions were rich and engaging, pushing us to be creative and innovative while learning how to creatively design for solutions. As an engineering student, I could help with the design and prototyping stages of the process, while I learned from those who were studying computer science the importance of user interface and user experience in solutions design. Empathy has a tremendous impact on the solutions, as the stories of the users are completely captured in the solution design process.”

Chimsom Isidore (MSc ’20) 
Participant, Global Design Thinking Week at AUC, 2018-2019

“Those with a marketing background were able to come up with innovative and creative solutions, while I lent my experience in finance and accounting to examining a solution’s technical and financial feasibility. The experience helped me understand the mindsets of others and become more effective as a team player. We all pushed each other to the limit.”

Mustafa El-Shahidi
Senior, Double Major in Business Finance and Accounting 
Student, Cooperative Education (CO-OP) Course, AUC’s School of Business

Student/Alumni Testimonials Compiled by Devon Murray

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