Learning a ‘human-centered’ approach to problem-solving
By Vanessa Salvia
July 22, 2019
A ground-breaking collaborative international educational programme, staged at the University of Oregon (UO) in Eugene, United States, has pushed the participating 52 students to ally their intellectual research skills with empathy and practicality to deliver effective solutions to global problems.
They have now entered the second week of an Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Undergraduate Leaders’ Program designed to foster innovative thinking and problem-solving.
From 1 July through 12 July, UO has been hosting undergraduates from 30 Pacific Rim universities. They have been working in small groups to develop skills empowering them to improve their home communities’ social and environmental standards.
As APRU Secretary General Christopher Tremewan wrote: “The cascading crises that confront the world require all the intellectual strength and social wisdom we can muster. This programme is a wonderful opportunity to spend a serious amount of time with other creative leaders to gain knowledge and build relationships that can incubate solutions.”
Through small group workshops led by skilled facilitators, the students have been working through exercises and challenges to boost their leadership abilities and test their problem-solving know-how.
A focus on team-building and resolution, for instance, led by a law school professor from UO, fed into a workshop on creating community led by a professor from the university’s business school.
The UO’s Holden Center for Leadership and Community Engagement was a natural partner to provide experts to run a workshop giving an introductory view of leadership.
Importance of empathy
One principle being stressed in these sessions has been that a solution without empathy is doomed to fail. As a result, participants have learned how to understand the real, actual people for whom they are designing solutions through a workshop on ‘human-centred design’.
On the second day of the programme, students met with Kiersten Muenchinger, UO product design professor. Human-centred design can encompass just about anything, including something as small as an app.
When thinking of a human-centred solution to a particular problem, Muenchinger urged students to “make sure the problem you’re solving is not a made-up problem, but a problem you’re solving with the actual end-user – or the organisation or the people that the organisation is trying to help – in mind. You’re not just solving your own problem.”
Muenchinger challenged the students’ assumptions about the human targets of their solutions. She said students looking at her standing in front of a class might assume that she is a well-dressed professional, but they would not know, for instance, what type of weather might most impede her commute to work.
Grace Honeywell, innovative programmes coordinator for UO’s division of global engagement, has been trying to make such understanding work internationally – it is her role to develop innovative programmes encouraging global engagement and connecting students worldwide through international curricula.
Honeywell said she reflected on the key values of leadership and what encourages innovative processes when developing the workshops.
The concept of a daily theme for these sessions emerged: “Becoming a leader is not necessarily a linear thing,” she said. “You can’t easily track it. As I started looking at the programme itself, to me what made the most sense was to have an arc of sorts, for each day of the programme and the process of coming up with solutions to these challenges.”
To that end, the organisers paired a theme with each day of the programme. The theme of the first day was ‘community’, which Honeywell said is “the basis of every positive environment”.
That first day students worked through a conflict resolution exercise, which along with icebreaking, contributed team-building exercises designed to foster positive interactions, so that the next day the teams could jump into experiencing ‘empathy’.
Adaptability and integrity
The second week took students deeper, with themes of ‘innovation’, ‘iteration’, ‘adaptability’, ‘action’ and ‘integrity’ being rolled out. At each step, students were challenged to express their thoughts, and what assumptions these were based on. Each student became both a teacher of other students and engaged in purposeful learning themselves.
As the students moved past the ideation phase into the implementation phase of their solution, they received tools for effective research from a UO science librarian.
To learn how to present that research in an effective way, students participated in a morning workshop on how to be innovative presenters and communicators. Lauren Miller, the UO’s director of strategic communications and marketing, advised on making strong, memorable and persuasive presentations.
This was clearly an important session, given that when Miller questioned the group about whether anyone considered themselves a skilled story-teller, no one raised their hand. Only two students thought they were persuasive, and many said they preferred not to give presentations but instead just wanted to be in the background of collaborations.
Miller used visual slides with text and photos to augment messages on how to approach planning group – as opposed to individual – presentations, and she challenged the group to set a personal goal for the aspect of presenting they wanted to improve.
“When I give presentations, people say I’m really quiet or I didn’t look at the audience so it’s less interesting,” noted Hana Nagura, a second-year culture, media and society student from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. “I want to be louder, and be more confident.”
Miller reassured her: “Confidence comes with practice.”
Of course, presentations are better when using a mother tongue. Che-Wei ‘Jeff’ Chang, a fourth-year forestry and resource conservation student from National Taiwan University, stressed that English was not his first language, so when giving presentations he takes the safer route of putting more words on slides rather than delivering his message orally, because of concerns an audience may not understand him.
However, he also would like to combine succinct messages on slides with insightful and compelling spoken words. “I want to improve. I want to say things more clearly, so they understand what I’m talking about.” Miller’s advice was that he should show others his slides and speaking notes ahead of a presentation to secure feedback on what he should say.
Connecting with the audience
During the second innovation workshop, UO’s Elly Vandegrift, a biology instructor and the associate director of its Science Literacy Program, led the group through exercises designed to get them thinking about connecting with their audience and distilling an appropriate message.
There was laughter as Vandegrift placed the group in a circle and led them through a game called ‘Zip Zap Zop’. Participants pass an imaginary energy bolt around a circle, while trying to maintain a consistent energy and rhythm, using their whole bodies and making eye contact with the person they are passing to.
She gave each person one minute to tell someone else something exciting they have learned or something they are working on. Then, time was given for the person to repeat that information back. Hana Nagura said she was surprised to hear the response because she said she forgot to share some important things and some of the recipient’s understanding, as related, did not seem to make sense.
Teresa Trujillo-Camacho, a second-year psychology and social behaviour student at the University of California, Irvine, said she learned that messages do not have to be dumbed down. “You just have to put it into words that can be easily understood,” she said.
Other students said listening to an audience and watching its reaction helps a speaker ensure their message is well understood.
One UO undergraduate resource student participating in the programme was Mohammed Zaidan, a fourth-year political science and history student whose family is Jordanian. As he was working to encourage other students to be leaders, he learned a bit about leadership as well.
“It was my role to be a guide and help my team,” he said. “I was trying to lead the way, but I would say that from this experience I learned a lot about leadership when it came to the idea of taking a step back [from active leadership]. The hardest part was taking a step back when the time was right.”
Andrew Prasettya Japri, a third-year public health student from the University of Indonesia, contrasted the traditional lecture experience at his institution with the active learning in this UO programme.
“In my country we always use the traditional approach,” he noted. “I like the way they give the workshops and the information to us here. They use some games to help us understand the materials. If you use a technique like that it will make the learning experience different. In my country I get bored studying for eight hours just sitting and listening, but here I can easily understand and remember what everyone is telling me.”