Stanford experts teach innovative career development approach to other universities

Educators from 14 universities across the country gathered at Stanford’s for four days to learn design thinking and how it can help their students with career development.

Innovative educators from a diverse group of universities across the United States gathered last week at Stanford’s to learn how they can apply the principles of design thinking to help students with their lives and careers.

Marisa LoBianco of the New School loosens up with the class between exercises.

One of 45 participants from 14 different universities, Marisa LoBianco of the New School loosens up with the class between exercises in the’s Life Design Studio. Participants learned how design thinking can help students with career development. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

As part of the inaugural four-day event, about 45 participants from 14 different universities went through a boot camp of the core life design approach taught at Stanford and used their newfound skills to develop curriculum and other experiments around those concepts at their institutions. The Stanford Life Design Lab, founded by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, hosted the event.

“Things are rapidly changing in the higher education world,” said Evans, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Design Program. “There is a growing sense that we need to invest more in the formation of a student’s whole life.”

Applying design concepts to life

For the past 10 years, Burnett, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering, and Evans have been teaching Stanford students design tools – notably how to use them to figure out one’s career path and purpose in life – through their Designing Your Life course.

The course became one of the most popular electives at Stanford. Burnett and Evans co-wrote a book about their method last fall.

Word about Burnett and Evans’ approach spread, especially after the book’s release. The Life Design Lab’s team was contacted by a growing number of higher education professionals, wanting to find out more about design thinking and how to create a similar course or program at their institution.

In response, the team came up with the four-day event, named the Life Design Studio.

Dave Evans, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering's Design Program, leads an exercise during the Life Design Studio.

Dave Evans, a lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Design Program, leads an exercise during the Life Design Studio. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“We’ve been getting asked by our higher education colleagues forever to help them do something like this,” Evans said. “And we tried hard to be invisible for a while because we just can’t help everybody. But this is the year that we’re trying to say yes.”

The concept of design thinking, which is used to create innovative technology products and spaces, consists of five steps: empathize with a user; define a problem; ideate or brainstorm; prototype solutions; test them. Using this process to think about one’s future career helps address students’ anxiety about life after college and lets them thoroughly examine the different possibilities in front of them, according to Evans and Burnett.

“There are many, many versions of you that you could play out, all of which would result in a well-designed life,” said Burnett, who is also the executive director of Stanford’s Design Program, during his TEDxStanford talk in April.

But helping people design their lives can be challenging. For instance, Burnett and Evans insist that students can’t be told what they should and shouldn’t pursue.

It’s also important to dispel certain “dysfunctional beliefs” that arise when people usually think about their career and life, Burnett said. For example, asking, “What’s your passion?” isn’t productive because research shows that most people don’t have just one area they’re interested in pursuing.

“I think a lot of us have empathy for what it feels like to be a wandering, lost college student,” said Gabrielle Santa-Donato, a lecturer and fellow at the Life Design Lab who catalyzed and organized the Life Design Studio. “Whether they are stressed out by real constraints or by their own selves, to be told that it’s OK and that there are multiple lives for you out there is comforting and necessary.”

Uniting analytical and design thinking

Groups of three to five representatives came to the event from California State University, Dominguez Hills; California State University, Stanislaus; Cornell University; Dartmouth College; Harvard University; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; The New School; Southern Methodist University; Trinity College; University of California, Berkeley; University of Dayton; University of Michigan; Williams College; and Yale University.

Jennifer Baszile, director of student success and interim director of career development at Trinity College in Connecticut, said the event has been transformative for her and her colleagues.

“In an institution of higher education it’s easy for people to say, ‘This is great idea,’” Baszile said. “What’s harder is how do you make it into programs and systems and processes that really have a direct impact on students.

“The idea of prototyping is just so, so powerful in higher education. We live in a world of analytical thinking and to bring design thinking into the mix is really exciting for us. It’s such a breath of fresh air.”

Lily Zhang, an assistant director of career counseling and training at MIT, said she learned about Evans and Burnett after reading their book and its coverage in the New York Times last fall. Zhang said MIT hosts career workshops and other programming, but she wished to find a way to attract more students to them.

“It blew my mind that Designing Your Life was such a popular class at Stanford,” Zhang said. “We think there are a lot of similarities between our student populations. So why is it that Stanford students are clamoring to that class but at MIT they seem to not have time for this? I wanted to learn more about what’s happening here.”

Zhang said her biggest takeaway was to start with small ideas and keep testing them.

Michael O’Connor, director of the Career Discovery Program at Williams College in Massachusetts, said some students at his college have already been exposed to the idea of applying design thinking to their lives and careers in a course earlier this year. He said he came to the event to find ways to expand on that course and create additional programming for students.

“It was a great opportunity for us to come out and learn,” O’Connor said. “I think this is the best training I’ve been to professionally. We were really pushed to come up with creative objectives to reach our goals.”