by Phillip Motley
In the spring semester of 2017, four faculty members and fourteen students at Elon University embarked on an immersive semester exploration of using design thinking tools and processes to address social challenges in the community surrounding the university. The Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation (“The Studio”) was borne out of many conversations amongst a handful of faculty who were frustrated with many aspects of how curriculum is typically delivered to students in higher education institutions. Our conversations were further fueled by ideas coming out of the New America Foundation. Specifically we were concerned with common higher education practices that include grades as the gold standard of assessment, adherence to a credit-hour system as an inherently meaningful structure, fractured student attention spans due to competing responsibilities, minimal and/or infrequent learning that occurs in spaces other than a classroom environment, or requirements for students to become good at problem solving while at the same time ignoring teaching them how to identify and define those problems first (Laitinen, 2012).
students working in design studio
The Studio is a unique curricular offering for undergraduate students at Elon University who are in their junior or senior year. The program runs for a full 15-week semester and requires participating students to commit to taking four courses (16 credits), which is a typical semester course load for our students. Students sign up for four specific classes, but the delivery of the learning is packaged in one continuous studio experience. The program uses innovation strategies such as design thinking, systems thinking, and agile project management to immerse students in the process of creating social change with partners in the local community. To date, the program has been offered twice as a pilot program. In both semesters (spring 2017 and 2018), students from a variety of academic majors engaged in empathy-based problem finding, ideation of potential solutions, and hands-on prototyping centered on the broad topic of wellness in the local community.
At a pedagogic level, we hold many unique objectives for how participating students will learn this content: 1) allow students to embrace failure by viewing it as data rather than a series of mistakes; 2) provide students with a learning environment that removes grades and other “school-based” assessments from their immediate concern; 3) ask students to focus their attention on one big task rather than many smaller ones (what we now refer to as  the “multiple class/multiple assignment fractured attention syndrome”); 4) require students to invest as much energy on locating and defining significant problems as they normally do on solving them; and, 5) invite students to view the semester as an immersive study abroad experience that just happens to be conducted on campus and in the local community.
We attempted to achieve our objectives by borrowing from several experiential learning pedagogies. From study abroad, we leveraged the value of cognitive dissonance that often accompanies immersive aspects of situated learning removed from the “bubble” of the typical university campus. From service-learning, we incorporated opportunities to work in authentic settings with real-world partners. From internships and practica programs, we borrowed having students work collaboratively in professional environments, ones that often feature mentor-novice pairings, and to make use of professional assessment strategies such as performance reviews rather than grades.
During the semester, students met five days a week in the studio for a three-hour session. Time spent in class was not disrupted by the specific objectives of individual courses, but was focused on continuous activities targeted at learning about design thinking tools and strategies, social innovation concepts, and material on mindsets and dispositions including empathy, curiosity, and idea generation. The students worked together to establish shared objectives based on information from community organizations. Within this structure, students were challenged to identify problems that their team could address given their majors, prior knowledge, and skills. They were encouraged to think iteratively about solutions, asked to prototype possibilities within the community, and pushed to take independent initiative in making connections with key community stakeholders. They created their own website to track their progress, reflect on what they were learning, and write about their successes and failures along the way.

The immersive nature of the program became both a blessing and a burden. Students were forced to confront frustrating situations posed by the program, and weren’t able to easily escape or shift focus to another course or responsibility when they ran into roadblocks or unexpected challenges. Ideas around tangible products, completed assignments, and measures of success became real issues that students individually and collectively struggled with. The increased levels of ambiguity and uncertainty that were part and parcel of the Studio weren’t what our students were accustomed to and they were challenged to find ways to adjust.
The teaching faculty involved with the program were also immersed in many ways. Though they were still teaching their regular course load, the amount of time required by the Studio was immense. Over time, they came to see themselves as a teaching family and to rely on that structure as the work became exhausting as the semester passed. Nonetheless, we tried to live by the motto of “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” We believed–and still do–that this unique approach to learning was a significant attempt at rethinking about how we teach our students.
I am confident that the faculty involved in this teaching and learning experiment all agree that social innovation is a noble pursuit, and design thinking offers many tools and processes that can be useful in a variety of higher education settings. However, the real value of this experiment is the immersive approach to learning. When students have opportunities to focus deeply on a topic, they are able to quickly move beyond surface-level learning to something more meaningful and lasting. Finding ways to facilitate this focus through intentionally designed structures and strategies can be, I believe, a highly effective way to promote this kind of depth, and is what led me to broadly explore immersive learning as a pedagogy.


  • Beckman, Sara, and Michael Barry. 2007. “Innovation as a Learning Process: Embedded Design Thinking.” California Review Management, 50, no 1: 25-56.
  • Brown, Tim, and Jocelyn. 2010. “Design Thinking for Social Innovation.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2010: 30-35.
  • Kolko, Jon. 2015. “Design Thinking Comes of Age.” Harvard Business Review, 93, no. 9: 66-71.
  • Laitinen, Amy. 2012. “Cracking the Credit Hour.” New America Foundation.

Phillip Motley, associate professor of communication design, is the 2019-2021 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. His CEL Scholar project focuses on immersive learning.

How to cite this post:

Motley, Phillip. 2019, October 30. The Design Thinking Studio in Social Innovation. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from