Design Thinking Curriculum Promotes Creativity, Collaboration & Empathy in Southern Oregon Students

By Ripley Pierotti

Some college courses focus on reading books and taking tests, but the curriculum in Design Thinking and Creative Entrepreneurship offered by the Communication, Media & Cinema program at Southern Oregon University is different. At SOU, these innovation courses make sure that students move around, talk to real people, and work out creative solutions to pressing challenges in the world.

Four students sit at a worktable and arrange multi-colored sticky notes on presentation paper
Students in Design Thinking work on their prototype and pitch for a multi-functional student support app called Blockbuilder

That’s what I learned when I took COMM325 — Design Thinking in 2022, and students at SOU and Rogue Community College have an opportunity to experience more of this learning on March 11, 2023.

SOU, RCC and Invent Oregon are co-hosting an Innovation Jam at RCC’s Table Rock Campus in White City, Oregon. Following the five phases of Design Thinking, students will work together to envision innovative solutions to Rogue Valley’s most pressing issues:

But what is Design Thinking? SOU has offered courses in Design Thinking, Creative Entrepreneurship and related topics since 2015. As taught by Associate Professor Erik Palmer, SOU’s course uses Design Thinking’s methods to reinvent higher education.

“Working within the principles of Design Thinking, students in COMM325 learn empathy, prototyping and creative agility that will serve them well in career paths such as media, high tech and public advocacy,” said Palmer. “Design Thinking aims to change the world, and this course encourages students to be more ambitious and create ideas with impact.”

Also inspired by Jake Knapp in his book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, COMM325 relies on design sprints to provide a framework for taking a project from the brainstorming stage to a fully-formed pitch.

While Knapp recommends that design sprints typically take place over a single workweek, SOU’s course takes a slightly less regimented approach to team sprints, stretching out the method’s five days into five weeks. This gives students a chance to learn and execute the steps of a sprint on a flexible timetable where they’re able to receive guidance and feedback on their work. The five steps of the process are map, sketch, decide, prototype, and test.

When I completed the course, my classmates and I were tasked with creating a pitch for a product or service that would solve issues surrounding higher education. We would develop a prototype in groups by conducting student interviews, brainstorming, and team collaboration. Our class’s primary methods of communication outside of class included collaboration platforms such as Slack and Mural, modeling the work culture of professional teams today.

My team’s college-redefining product was BlockBuilder, an app directed at students experiencing burnout. We came up with the idea after conducting interviews with students and discussing how online university resources like academic planning, event calendars, and course catalogs could have been clearer and easier to navigate.

Blockbuilder’s app prototype incorporates academic, social and wellness features

An app that combines all of these tools in one place could make a real difference to students who are feeling overwhelmed. We also observed that students experiencing burnout are often isolated from university social events and clubs, leading to loneliness and an increased risk of mental health issues. Social and academic life are often presented as opposites, but they’re two parts of the same whole. When students are invested in their on-campus community, they’re less likely to lose motivation and drop out. BlockBuilder would compile relevant tools and resources for students into an app that caters to universities’ social and academic aspects.

The app is divided into five sections, or “blocks.” These include an introductory app survey and tabs for courses, academic planning, health and wellness, and social activities. One of BlockBuilder’s most innovative features is the “Academic Planning” tab, which allows students to browse a course catalog, register for classes, and even check their degree progress.

I designed BlockBuilder’s visuals, taking inspiration from apps like Canvas, Blackboard, and Twitter. It was important that the app felt like both a social media experience and an academic resource, encouraging students to log in and connect with each other.

After the prototype was complete, the last step was testing it by interviewing students and asking for feedback. We received valuable constructive criticism, with some students suggesting the app had too many features and needed to be simplified. A week later, after making a few tweaks to our prototype, we presented our pitch for BlockBuilder. It was helpful to get outside feedback from the interviews — when you’re in the middle of the design process, it’s easy to forget that sometimes simpler is better.

COMM 325: Design Thinking is a one-of-a-kind course at SOU that provides a strong foundation for students looking to work in professional design and marketing. I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience a bit of what working at a design firm entails and to reimagine what college could be.

Story by Ripley Pierotti, Community Manager for the Communication, Media & Cinema Program at Southern Oregon University.



Comm, Media & Cinema @ Southern Oregon University

Earn BA/BS Degrees and Certificates in Communication Studies, Social Media & Public Engagement, or Digital Cinema @SOUAshland. #ThatIsSOU