Improving Student Codesign Practices: Our Work with Northwestern University’s Design for America

Jeff Bergin, Ph.D., Vice President, Learning Research and Design

August 1st, 2018

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In February, I was a panelist at Design for America's event, Imagining the Future of Social Impact, which was held at the LinkedIn office in San Francisco. Seated among Design for America students and alumni, and a fair share of LinkedIn folks, I learned a ton from my fellow panelists August de los Reyes, Head of Design at Pinterest; Sarah Alpern, Head of User Experience Design at LinkedIn; Hannah Hudson, Sr. Design Researcher & Strategist at Intuit; and our enthusiastic moderator, Liz Gerber, Northwestern Faculty Founder of Design for America.

What I learned the most about, however, was Design for America, itself. Design for America (DFA) is a global leader in student-led social entrepreneurship using design thinking methodologies. DFA pairs college students with organizations to address pressing social problems and create innovative solutions. Students sign up for the program based on an interest in design thinking, innovation, and social change - not to receive credit or compensation - and their work is quite frankly remarkable.

Design for America (DFA) has become a globally recognized model for shaping the next generation of social innovators and, most recently, has been awarded the 2018 Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for corporate & institutional achievement. It began at Northwestern University as the brainchild of Associate Professor of Design Liz Gerber and three of her students in 2009. Dr. Gerber saw how design could address seemingly intractable social issues and how the experience could equip young people with the capacity to lead important social change.

Today, DFA studios are on nearly 40 college campuses across America, with new studios launching each academic year. Annually, more than 1200 students work on over 150 social innovation projects -- projects that result in meaningful positive impact for local communities. DFA alumni build upon their DFA training to develop careers as engineers, architects, consultants, non-profit directors, software developers, designers, editors, and teachers. Some are entrepreneurs, ranging from Swipe Sense, Best of CES 2018 award winner Sproutel, Cupid's Cup participant Luna Lights and also Therapalz, Wellinks, Pair Eyewear, and Somewhere. Some alumni even launch DFA inspired networks in their home countries: Design for Pakistan, Jiang China Design, Design for Taiwan.

DFA's philosophy and methodology is underpinned by the core tenets of both Learning Research and Design Methodology -- indeed, the parallels are what drew me to the program initially. According to research in the learning sciences, it's critical to tap into student motivation, foster student choice and self-regulation, engage in collaborative problem-solving work, and encourage higher order thinking - all of which are emphasized in DFA's learner-centric program. According to good design methodologies, it's important to address real life challenges and novel problems and to engage in human-centered design research, design thinking and design sprints - practices that form the core of DFA's methodology. Most importantly, Macmillan and DFA also share a relentless commitment to helping learners achieve more. Upon hearing about Macmillan Learning's approach, Dr. Gerber said, "Thank you for leading the charge on student-designed learning environments! I am thrilled to help you and your effort to change the instructional design paradigm!"

In August, I'm excited to kick-off DFA's annual Leadership Studio. This year's theme is "Empowering Students to Take Control of Learning," something that Macmillan's Learning Research team, Learning Research Advisors, and Student CoDesigners all champion. Our kickoff event will focus on helping students, faculty members, and mentors consider "What Kind of Designer Are You?" This event will also help us to better understand the construct of motivation and to share methods for synthesizing human-centered design research. Over the weekend, Alex Britez, Jared Crane, and Abbie Kulhowvick will be featured on DFA panels focused on Design Careers and Design Ethics.

In the future, we will be leveraging Design for America's network to recruit students for research projects, recruit student interns, and to co-deliver webinars on important topics in learning and design. Moreover, DFA will also inform and inspire our learning research and design methodologies. In the words of Rebecca Breuer, Executive Director for DFA, "We are so, so thrilled and honored by all that you are doing to engage with DFA and the Leadership Studio." Learning Research and Design echoes this sentiment, and is thrilled by the opportunity to learn from and grow with such an esteemed student codesign program. We look forward to this collaboration and to cooperatively influencing both learning and design with the DFA community around the world.Keep up to date with our student-focused work by visiting our website. If you're interested in collaborating with us, contact Jeff Bergin at

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