Keeping People at the Center in Virtual Teaching and Learning

How can a highly experiential workshop be redesigned for a digital environment? How can a culture of empathy and experimentation be created in a community that’s distributed around the world? And how can we be effective teachers when we can’t be in the same room as our learners?

Our team grappled with these and many other questions when presented with the challenge of redesigning the University Innovation Fellows program’s Teaching and Learning Studio faculty workshop in July 2020. We have spent four years designing and redesigning elements of this workshop to make it impactful, hands-on, and fun for participants. Then the pandemic forced us to decide whether to cancel our June and July workshops, or redesign them to work online.

We had two months to get it right and started with the question, “can distance learning be a joy to attend?” Even though a slew of Zoom calls can be tedious, maybe there are ways that distance learning is even better than in person. It was — and still is — a tall order.

Here is what we discovered. Some of our experiments worked better than expected. And some things we had to learn the hard way. We’ve rounded up all of our learnings so you can learn some of these lessons more easily than we did.

(And, if what you read sounds interesting to you, we’re offering another virtual experience in February.)

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Past in-person Teaching and Learning Studio workshops. Photos by Laurie Moore.

Quick background

We’ve usually offered the Teaching and Learning Studio (TLS) workshop three times a year, in-person at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute for Design (

The in-person workshop is a five-day experience for a group of 50 higher ed teachers and administrators from around the world. We help participants use design thinking to create student-centric learning experiences and spaces at their schools. At the end of the experience, this group is a bonded community of practice that continues to stay in touch long after the workshop to share strategies and ask for advice.

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One of many Zoom group photos

The workshop becomes virtual

Forty participants joined what we called Virtual Teaching and Learning Studio, or vTLS, led by seven teaching team members.

What was formerly an intensive 5-day experience became a two-week event, July 6–17, 2020. Participants met with the teaching team live on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and used Wednesdays to work asynchronously on their own. “Educators as designers” was the theme of the first week, and the second week focused on “Educators as experimenters.”

In the big picture, the goal of the workshop remained the same: to explore how design mindsets, skills and methods can help us reimagine teaching practices to support deep, authentic learning and equitable outcomes for all students. As educators, these are all things we need to do whether we’re teaching in-person or online.

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We conducted an unconference at a virtual using Gather

Platforms and tools we used

As many of us have been forced to learn, “Zoom fatigue” is a real thing. It’s no fault of the teachers who made the gallant, quick switch from in-person to online. It’s not the fault of the software makers whose platforms are being used for unintended activities and durations. But we have all learned that trying to match an in-person experience using a limiting video conference tool is not always fruitful.

We need to consider constraints of digital platforms and design learning experiences with them in mind. These same digital platforms offer amazing opportunities that wouldn’t exist in a physical classroom, such as bringing in a guest from another part of the world.

Another important part of learning to teach online is recognizing that teaching doesn’t automatically mean just using a video conference platform. We need to think about what kinds of behaviors need to happen in our learning experiences to find platforms and tools that will work.

The vTLS team determined that we needed to 1) communicate and see one another, 2) work, create and think together, and 3) provide ways for participants to learn asynchronously, or self-paced. Here’s what we used for each goal.

Ways to communicate and see faces: Zoom, Gather and WhatsApp

Despite the public groanings about Zoom fatigue, we use the platform constantly. In vTLS, it was helpful to bring the community together live, visually, on the active days of the week. The calls were used to set a community culture, engage the learners, give them work to do on their own, and reflect on activities. The team also created the vTLS Lounge, where participants could join the live calls early to discuss whatever they wanted.

On the platform Gather, participants use an avatar to move around virtual gathering spaces. The vTLS team created a “virtual” in Gather where learners could simulate the experience of walking around the’s many spaces and having live conversations with one another. Here’s how it works: when you “walk” your avatar next to a group of avatars, their conversation becomes audible, and you can join in, much like you would if you walked up to a group of people in the real world. When you move your avatar away, the conversation fades away until you join another group. This allowed us to facilitate activities where participants gathered in groups to talk without having to be teleported to breakout rooms. The facilitator simply “walked” from one group to the next to give them directions or participate in their conversation.

The teaching team used WhatsApp to stay in touch with participants to remind them of activities and deadlines.

Ways to work, create and think together: Mural and Google Docs

The group used Mural for brainstorming during live sessions. This platform acts as a virtual whiteboard where users can add text, sticky notes, and images, and even quickly embed documents and videos. We discovered a few ways that brainstorming virtually on Mural was better than in person:

  1. There is no limit to the number of people who can add ideas at the same time.
  2. Those who are shy feel more comfortable adding ideas (they can do so in a way that’s less visible to others).
  3. Users can vote for ideas anonymously and see which ideas rise to the top using a voting function.
  4. The whiteboard doesn’t need to be erased at the end of the session, and users always come back to add or harvest ideas.

Additionally, the teaching team used Mural to create interactive artifacts, such as a timeline of the workshop, and an “Experiments Gallery” that featured work by TLS alumni. The teaching team also used Mural to collaborate when designing the workshop.

Below is a walk-through of the vTLS Experiments Gallery on Mural including a big picture view at the end showing how the Mural was built.

We used Google docs and folders to store and share documents. Additionally, we created a living record of the event, the vTLS Portal, which was updated constantly, and the participants could access at any time. This doc contained a summary of each live session, links to the session recordings, resources such as articles and videos for further learning, homework assignments for the next day, prompts for reflection, and more. The doc, which is 34 pages long, remains accessible as a resource to participants after the workshop. At the time of writing, there were five participants viewing it.

Ways to learn asynchronously: Nearpod

The team wove self-paced, audio-guided experiences into the workshop, which participants accessed via Nearpod. Below are two of the experiences that we created for vTLS (enter your name to try them out):

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The vTLS Reflection Mural

Setting a group culture online

Our teaching team spends a significant amount of time creating a culture within the participant group that encourages empathy, deep reflection, and a safe space for experimentation.

In order to create similar outcomes in the digital space, here are a few things the teaching team experimented with:

  • Reflection Mural: As “homework” each day, participants were asked to add insights from the day to a reflection Mural. Teaching team members synthesized the reflections (see more in the “Ways we teach teachers” section) and shared them with everyone on the next day’s Zoom call. This created an opportunity for each participant to let the learnings of the day sink in, and to give them a chance to share questions and ideas.
  • Ritual Ins: Group warm-up activities at the beginning of each live Zoom call, such as one where participants found meaningful objects around their space (or on themselves) and used them to introduce themselves to their teammates. These types of activities were intended to get people smiling and ready to be creative.
  • Chatitude: During the last Zoom call, teaching team members asked participants to share thanks and kudos for one another on the public group chat. They took screen shots of the chat and made a collage for the participants to show how much gratitude existed and how important their relationships were.

What did learners actually do?

Here are just a few of the activities our participants did (we don’t want to give away all of our surprises!):

As part of a design challenge, teams brainstormed ideas on Mural. They started with building on each other’s individually-generated ideas. They also used different types of constraints including Madame Meenu’s famous crystal ball readings (teaching team member Meenu had to figure out how to do this online — here’s what she did).

They explored six pedagogical levers to help them design new learning experiences for their students: Culture, Objectives, Activities, Assessment, Artifacts, and Space.

Teams worked with coaches to create “Sneaky Lil’ Experiments” that they’ll implement immediately in their courses and activities.

One day, the group was surprised by designer magician Andrew Evans, who performed a few tricks for them (read this article for more on Andrew).

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Designer magician Andrew Evans performing for vTLS participants

Teachers as designers

A core component of the workshop was learning to utilize six pedagogical levers: culture, objectives, activities, assessment, artifacts, and space. As educators, we can experiment with each of these levers as we design or redesign learning experiences, both in person and online.

When educators need to transition in person to online, they can use these levers to redesign learning experiences. For example, if an activity requires students to brainstorm in front of a whiteboard, they can think about what kind of digital spaces allow for that same collaboration and building on ideas.

Stay tuned for a future article that will dive deeper into this framework!

Ways we teach teachers

Teaching a workshop for teachers is a little bit different than for other workshop audiences. Our participants are always curious about what the teaching team does to create the experience. So our teaching team members experimented with different ways of opening up their own processes.

Here’s what we did, and how you can try it in your virtual classroom.

One example of this is with the synthesis of reflections. Each day, participants responded to prompts about what they learned, what they wanted to know, what they weren’t sure about. At the in-person workshops, teaching team members synthesize the responses prior to attendees arriving each day, and then share the results with everyone. For vTLS, two teaching team members held a live Zoom synthesis each day so participants could observe their thinking process and their reactions as they grouped items before the share-out.

Another example of how we offered a look into our event creation process was recapping for the group what artifacts the team used to create the day’s activities, from Mural boards to videos to PDF articles. This helped the participants reflect on what the teaching team created for them to understand the day’s lessons.

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Benefits to an online environment

We asked participants about their virtual experience in a survey post workshop.

While a few felt that an online format prevents personal connections, some noted that the distance helped them engage with others in new ways and come out of their comfort zones:

“I felt much more uninhibited online,” noted one faculty member. “I liked being able to be home, and still learn and grow with people from all over the world. Also, the technology that we were able to use elevated our ability to collaborate effectively and creatively. It also allows more participation from alumni and current students in the activities that require learners and users to react to our experiments, prototypes, and…workshops. It also allows more diversity in both the participant and learner/user groups as geography [is] no longer a limiting factor to participation.”

Another participant noted:

“It allowed the introvert in me to be me. It allowed me to step back between sessions and reflect, which I find difficult if there are many other people around.”

A few observations from the teaching team

Here are a few things we learned along the way that you can use in your classroom:

Treat the creation of your online experience like any other design project and consider the people first — who they are, what they need, what they’ll feel during each part. We knew that many of our learners were at home where they had family responsibilities, so we had to design this experience so it was inclusive and inviting.

Just like we would in an in-person class, we needed to set a group culture and create community. One way we did this was inspired by the work of Margaret Hagan and Kursat Ozenc (Rituals for Work). We began and ended each synchronous session with a “Ritual In” and “Ritual Out.” Sometimes these rituals foreshadowed the learning we’d be doing that day, but more often, they were focused on building connection and having a conversation with a fellow participant. We also created a playlist of each participant’s “go to” song for raising their spirits. This gave everyone a musical sense of their cohort family. (You can listen to that playlist here).

We applied the “podcast rule” — if it can be turned into a podcast, it shouldn’t take up synchronous class time. If learners can consume a piece of content by themselves on their own time, they should. We turned that content into Nearpod modules, video recording, readings, and more.

Coming soon!

We will hold another vTLS in February 2021, which you can read about here. Of course, because we are experimenters at heart, we are building on what we’ve learned to date, not only with the July workshop, but also with another program we designed and are currently running called the Innovative Teaching Scholars Program for higher education professors in Thailand.

In both experiments, we’ve learned that virtual teaching and learning can be transformative and impactful — if you design for it!

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Here’s who did all the hard work

The teaching team is a mix of educators from the and from other higher education institutions who are seasoned learning experience designers and facilitators:

  • Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, University Innovation Fellows,, Stanford University
  • Bre Przestrzelski, IDEO U
  • Dean Chang, Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland
  • Erica Estrada-Liou, Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, University of Maryland
  • Ilya Avdeev, Mechanical Engineering and Lubar Entrepreneurship Center, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
  • Meenu Singh, Graduate School of Education and, Stanford University
  • Timothy Moore, Designlab

A few treats — resources shared with participants

You’ll have to attend a vTLS to get the whole suite of resources we shared, but here are a few:

Learning about learning

Teachers as learners resources

Design as a Response to Crises

by Sedinam Worlanyo
Originally posted on Medium

Fight or flight. This theory first described by Walter Bradford Cannon sheds light on a physiological reaction that occurs “in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.” Your body chooses to flee in a crisis or to stay and fight. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, our team chose a fight response.

Our University Innovation Fellows team chose to respond by immediately bringing together and leveraging the power of people to help shape and tackle issues related to the coronavirus threat. We launched a virtual accelerator program dubbed UIF vs Corona that took place between April 6 and April 18.

I interviewed participants in the weeks that followed to better understand their experiences, find out what they learned, and get an update on their projects. Below are the results of that research. We hope that this demonstrates the power and potential of virtual gatherings to work on big challenges.

A global kick-off event

This accelerator convened 200 University Innovation Fellows, Faculty Champions, and guests (we gave Fellows the chance to bring along a +1, a trusted collaborator). People came from several countries across the globe to brainstorm ideas and formed teams to explore 20 challenges, under four themes: “Fighting the Disease,” “Reactivating the Economy,” “Protecting the most vulnerable” and “Reimagining Education.”

Participants were driven by various motivations to be a part of UIF vs Corona. E, a prospective Fellow from University of Nebraska at Omaha described her motivation as, “I really kind of felt lost. And so what this offered me was a chance to give back to others and make a solution for others that weren’t and aren’t as lucky as I am in this situation and so I think it really just sparked something to kind of feel a sense of purpose during these weird times.”

This sense of purpose was felt by our team who kicked off the accelerator with a “Community Roulette” where people got to learn more about one another. In the 24 hours following the kickoff, about 150 participants signed up to continue working on the challenges, and 29 teams were formed.

Screenshots from one of the Spotlight Experts, Dr. Frederik G. Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist, Google

Exploring the challenges

During the week of April 6–10, participants explored their respective problem spaces deeply through question storming, reframing and remote needfinding. Teams had the support of dedicated coaches and on-demand advisors — for process/design thinking, team dynamics, storytelling, and technologies for collaboration.

There were also spotlight presentations and workshops that ranged from topics of innovation to business models; as well as first-hand accounts from emergency room doctors and business owners. These spotlights were live and recorded for asynchronous access throughout the two weeks and beyond.

Idea Brainstorming Board from UIF vs Corona

Final projects

The accelerator ended with a Community Share Out on Saturday April 18, where teams got feedback from peers and collaborators. Teams presented solutions that ranged from reactivating the economy for small business enterprises to helping teachers transition online to identifying asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. Some of these teams are still working on their solutions today.

All in all, the virtual accelerator was not only a catalyst for change but also provided a ripple effect in the impact it created beyond the accelerator. This was evident from Joe Samosky, a mentor for one of the teams and Professor of Bioengineering at University of Pittsburgh.

“The idea that, you know, the is going to say, yeah, we have this worldwide UIF program and in our very first session, we’re going to have like 170 people on and we’re going to do breakout rooms. I mean, if it works, it’s great. If it fails, you know, we’ll figure out a way. I definitely took inspiration from that.”

Through UIF vs Corona, seeds of changemaking were planted, cross-cultural connections emerged, and we were reminded about the power of teams united by a common purpose. Like Ryan Middleton, an advisor and instructor at the Blue Horizons, Air University, who said that he believes that UIF vs Corona was “worth the risk” of trying something new in unsettling times.

“What you saw was someone who said, I’m going to take action. And I don’t know how it’s going to turn out but it’s the right thing to do and it’s who we are as an organization. And look at how many people showed up.”

It doesn’t need to be said that crises such as the pandemic provide significant challenges to all aspects of our lives. But as educators, they also force us to engage with our students in new ways that may be beneficial to higher education in the long term. Learning experiences such as our virtual accelerator help give community members a chance to apply their skills to real-world problem solving.

Note: If you’re considering hosting your own virtual accelerator or conference, here are some resources (linked in the titles) we created that might be helpful.

UIF vs Corona: What You Need to Know Guide
This document was shared with all participants as an early primer as well as a resource throughout the event. It was kept up to date with new content and links to resources as they became available.

Video playlist of team projects
We asked participant teams to make short videos detailing their projects. In the process of figuring out how to tell their story, this exercise helps teams to clarify any existing issues or questions with their project.

Meetup Reflections: Creating Change Together

350 University Innovation Fellows and faculty traveled to the Bay Area for the 2019 Silicon Valley Meetup. Check out the materials and other resources from the Meetup.

Nearly 350 University Innovation Fellows and faculty traveled to the Bay Area for the 2019 Silicon Valley Meetup, March 21-25, to learn new ways to create change in higher education. Our UIF team was thrilled to host so many amazing changemakers at Stanford University and Google for four learning-packed days.

This is the seventh (!) Silicon Valley Meetup we’ve held, and we wanted to try something different for this year’s event blog post. The Meetup wouldn’t be possible without 24 Fellows who served as Fabs (short for “fabulous”). These Fabs were bus team leaders, facilitators, mentors, speakers, event organizers and friends. We asked the Fabs for their reflections on different parts of the Meetup to provide an insider’s look at the action, adventure and learning.

Day 1: The first moments of the Meetup

By Carolina Vassallucci, University of Montevideo

The magic began when the Fellows registered in one of the rooms of the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Thursday afternoon. There were six tables decorated according to different teams that represented superheroes: Avengers, X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, The Justice League and Fantastic Four. Each team was represented by four Fabs and had its table decorated according to their superhero team.

When the Fellows entered the room, all the Fabs shouted the name of their group and danced uncontrollably. What was the goal? To spread the energy from the very beginning, while doing simultaneous activities: checking who arrived, and giving them custom name badges, notebooks and UIF stickers. Fabs answered questions regarding dress code and agenda, and fielded comments about the excitement and anxiety for the days that were approaching.

Day 2: Google and a culture of innovation

By Jessica Aldrich, Wichita State University

Standing on the roof of Google helping set up one of the iconic Silicon Valley Meetup photos, I observed the formation of a community of individuals who had only met a few hours prior.

Fellows attending the Meetup spent their first full day at Google where they heard from Frederik Pferdt, the Chief Innovation Evangelist at Google, and were empowered to believe that they were ready to change the world. They were inspired by Daniel Holle from Loon, Ciela Hartanov from The Google School for Leaders, and Reena Jana, Head of Product & Business Inclusion Strategy at Google. They learned to build psychological safety within their teams and this community. After reflecting on the day with the Wichita State University Fellows, they shared with me some profound insights and takeaways:

“Become a leader when necessary, but not always. Be your own person, but work with your team too.”

“As soon as you shift your perspective, you change what you see.”

“Have courage to step into the unknown.”

This cohort of Fellows transformed from unsure about the day ahead (they were greeted with high fives at 8 am) to feeling like a deep community that embraced everyone when the buses rolled off Google campus at the end of the day. They had learned insights from industry leaders, experienced their first round of Fab ignites (short talks about their passions, challenges and activities as Fellows), and developed deep friendships that continued to grow over the rest of the week.

Day 3: Reimagining learning at Stanford

By Sienna George, Boise State University

On Saturday, Fellows experienced what it mean to “reimagine learning” through a day of experiential activities and a culminating unconference. They learned to test their own boundaries of what it means to learn and the potential they have to contribute to the learning landscapes at their own colleges and universities.

Throughout the day, Fellows embraced dance with Aleta Hayes from Stanford as a means by which to cultivate empathy for self-and-other and got inspired to challenge their own comfort zones. They engaged with the concept of space as a catalyst for connection and creativity using the book Make Space as a guide for creating collaborative spaces. They learned public speaking and how to present themselves with confidence from Dan Klein of Stanford. They got “stoked” as they practiced how to reinvigorate mindsets and learned to energize others, and ultimately, embraced their own “true colors,” as they understood their leadership attributes and values, and how to collaborate with others during the “Six Thinking Hats” activity. The day’s culminating unconference presented students with the opportunity to couple their knowledge with an experience to share their own wisdom, demonstrating what it means to truly reimagine learning by contributing their brightest ideas for the future landscape of higher education.

As a Fab, my greatest take-away from the day was watching students transform their mindset from one of “I can’t do that,” or “that’s not for me,” into a mindset of “anything is possible,” and “that’s mine to make the most of,” embodying the spirit of true student agency.

Day 4: Designing for the future

By Sam Warach, University of New Hampshire

Sunday featured several inspirational speakers: Lisa Kay Solomon, designer in residence at the; Alberto Savoia, Co-Founder of Agitar Software and former Google Innovation Agitator, who covered topics such as his concept of “Pretotyping”; Holley Murchison, founder of Oratory Glory, who talked about the importance of your personal brand and story; and Eric Edward Schell of Pride Portraits.

In the morning there were a series of panels featuring Fellows who had graduated and were in the workforce. During this, I had the opportunity to share my journey of growing my own startup NextStep HealthTech, and the launch of our mobile health software product, Hey NextStep. After the panel sessions, Fellows regrouped with members from their home universities to design system changes they would plan to implement upon their return. Students in my workshop group from India decided they were going to create a design club at their home university to cultivate positive change in their community.

In the afternoon, I personally had the honor to deliver a talk called “Take the NextStep: Harness the Power of Tenacity” to the attendees to share my experience as a Fellow working to create impact both in my Alma Mater community at the University of New Hampshire, and in the Behavioral Healthcare Industry after graduation with NextStep HealthTech.

I feel confident to say we will see the emerging leaders who have gone through the University Innovation Fellows program implement solutions to pressing problems, and change the world for the better.

Marvelous Monday adventures

By Vanessa Ganaden, California State University, Fullerton

On Monday morning, participants were given the opportunity to select one of six destinations: Stanford innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) programs; the Garage at Microsoft Silicon Valley; Sustainable U (Stanford Sustainable Food Program); K-12 education at the Nueva School Innovation Lab; startup culture at Handshake headquarters; and a reflection at the Golden Gate Bridge.

I was a facilitator for the Stanford I&E program adventure. It was a fascinating look into how Stanford promotes I&E in the programs that they offer within the campus. For the first part, we explored how the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP) promotes entrepreneurship within Stanford’s School of Engineering. Then we took a look into how extreme and innovative thinking is being used to create social impact in the world’s poorest countries with the’s “Design for Extreme Affordability” class. After those two programs, we participated in a workshop entitled “Designing with Machine Learning” with a goal to democratize machine learning through the use of design systems to create human-centric solutions.

When we say “innovation and entrepreneurship,” it can be hard to connect with, not because we don’t understand the importance of the topics, but rather it can be challenging to connect them  with our real world. Today’s activity showed me and the other Fellows that innovation and entrepreneurship are applied very deeply to the things that we care about, from social issues to new technologies such as machine learning. It also demonstrated that Design Thinking is a universal methodology that can transcend disciplines, technology and cultures to solve problems that change the world.

Lifelong connections

By Trevor Clevenger, Colorado School of Mines

There were hundreds of college students from around the world here for the Meetup. It was so inspiring to see people from such different backgrounds collaborating on how to make their campuses a better place. A lot of the students were noticeably shy at first, but you could tell that everyone opened up substantially as the weekend went on. By the end of the Meetup, real connections were being made that these students can carry with them for the rest of their lives.

What it means to be a Fab

By Jonathan Puhl, University of North Dakota

During our time as Fabs for this year’s Silicon Valley Meetup, we came to understand the true meaning of community. We helped orchestrate, implement, and keep the Meetup running, while helping any faculty or students with their needs. Our role seems to be a combination of facilitator and organizer mixed together.

While doing all the tasks associated with these descriptions, we also give ignite talks to the 350 attendees. Some topics included our questioning whether we are “just” students, overcoming incredible odds, and difficult happenings in our lives. We hope that these talks inspired the attendees do even more incredible things.

One thought we came away with this year wasn’t just that we got to be Fabs at the Meetup, but that through our involvement, we got to help others achieve their goals, simply by being able to tell our story, have a chat, or give them ideas to implement on their campus. This “role” is an amazing experience to bring our UIF skills to a different level and implement our learning through the UIF program and our lives, into a community focused purpose to help others do even greater things.

Life lessons

By Omri Gal, Swarthmore College

I learned how important it is to share your story. You never know who it will affect, and how. By sharing, you are able to connect with others and form deep and meaningful relationships. Working with the other FABs was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. I have never worked with such an incredible group of people, and it taught me how important it is to surround yourself with empathetic, and caring people.

UIFamily forever!

By Daniel Kleinman, University of Florida, Leidos

Between my parents’ divorce when I was 13 and my dad and grandmother passing away when I was 23, the feeling of being a part of a family unit has not been much of a constant in my life. Feeling like I actually belonged to something (more than just being involved) created this raw, deep sense of connection that was something that I rarely, if ever, had felt in my life.

Being a Fab and part of this UIFamily was not just about feeling the love and support that comes with being surrounded by such amazing people, but truly how humbling it is to know that everyone is there for you on a deeper level, without a shred of doubt. There is certainly a practice of what we preach with empathy, passion, and inspiration for one another. There’s an unspoken confidence in the quality and commitment to these connections that makes them much more than friendships – and that’s when I knew I had found my UIFamily… and now they can’t get rid of me if they tried!

The Power of a Peer Community

University Innovation Fellows shared strategies for student-led change in higher education at the James Madison University Regional Meetup in November 2015.


At the James Madison University Regional Meetup, University Innovation Fellows share their insights and lessons learned from creating activities, events and spaces at their schools. Photo by Laurie Moore.

by Laurie Moore
Originally posted on

Students circulated the room, their voices echoing off concrete floors and high ceilings. They wandered from one rolling whiteboard to the next, where their peers presented what they’d learned from creating activities, events and spaces at their schools. The presenters wrote insights on the whiteboards as they talked — a live poster session without paper or graphs. Instead of rotating to the next whiteboard when instructed, some students remained at the same board, taking detailed notes on the topic and asking follow-up questions. Many of the discussions extended over lunch and throughout the day.

This showcase of activities was one of many highlights of the University Innovation Fellows Regional Meetup hosted by James Madison University (JMU) on November 14-15, 2015. Titled “Own It. Do It.” and held at JMU X-Labs, the meetup provided an opportunity for Fellows to connect in person and learn from one another about how to engage their peers around innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and design thinking.


The event, designed by JMU Fellows and faculty sponsors, was attended by 40 students from 13 schools in addition to JMU: Clemson University, Dalhousie University, Furman University, George Mason University, Grand Valley State University, La Salle University, Morgan State University, North Dakota State University, University of Portland, University of Virginia, Villanova University, Virginia Commonwealth University, and William Jewell College.

Speakers and activities included a welcome from JMU President Jonathan Alger; an icebreaker with Outriggers, a student-led event facilitation group; a two-part design thinking challenge led by professor Justin Henriques and UIF program co-leader and Stanford lecturer Leticia Britos Cavagnaro; a talk by Marty O’Neill of Corsum Consulting; and a tour of the Harrisonburg Printers Museum from museum owner and excavator Timothy Moore, a JMU University Innovation Fellow who helped design the meetup.

James Madison University President Jonathan Alger welcomes the Fellows. Photo by Daniel Stein/

James Madison University President Jonathan Alger welcomes the Fellows. Photo by Daniel Stein/

To kick off the meetup, President Alger welcome the attendees on Saturday morning, accompanied by the Provost, Associate Provost, Dean of Engineering and other faculty leading the innovation movement on campus. Alger spoke of the importance of the Fellows’ work both at JMU and at other schools. “I was excited for JMU to host this event with student leaders from across North America because I believe that this sort of convening leads to the exchange of a wide variety of ideas and approaches,” Alger said later. “Our vision is that all students can learn how to be change agents in the university and in the world.”

Exchanging ideas was the thread that connected all of the activities during the event, as was discovering a community of like-minded individuals.

After President Alger’s introduction, participants talked with Presidential Innovation Fellows Emily Ianacone and Steven Babitch, who discussed projects that required them to work on “problems not yet defined.” One such project resulted in a platform to facilitate more dialogue between diabetes patients and their health care providers.

Presidential Innovation Fellows Emily Ianacone and Steven Babitch discuss their projects with the Fellows. Photo by Daniel Stein/

Presidential Innovation Fellows Emily Ianacone and Steven Babitch discuss their projects with the Fellows. Photo by Daniel Stein/

The connections between the University Innovation Fellows and the President Innovation Fellows seemed to go far beyond the names, with both groups working to create lasting change: one in higher education, and one in industry and the nonprofit sectors.

“The world around us is constantly evolving, and it’s important to have people who are creating change and evolution at large institutions like universities,” Emily Ianacone said.

“I think it’s hugely important for Fellows to engage in actual projects that they care about,” said Steven Babitch. “They’re working across different teams and bringing their collective experiences together. That’s how the real world works.”

As the first of many sessions designed to strengthen their relationships with one another, Fellows participated in a team design thinking exercise. With the campus bustling with activity from parents weekend, meetup participants set out on foot to interview JMU students about challenges they faced on campus or in the community. Later that afternoon, teams designed solutions and pitched their best ideas to faculty and administrators. This helped teams understand the different perspectives of all the stakeholders involved in creating change at a school.

Fellows took part in a design thinking exercise to explore challenges faced by students on campus. Photo by Laurie Moore.

Fellows took part in a design thinking exercise to explore challenges faced by students on campus. Photo by Laurie Moore.

Another session was the whiteboard presentation circuit, where students presented on activities they’d created including hack-a-thons, pop-up classes and makerspaces. Fellows noted the value of these opportunities to learn from one another and build strong relationships with other students who are just as passionate and motivated as themselves.

“I just learned how to host my own TEDx event in literally 15 minutes from one of the other Fellows,” said Iyanna Patterson, a Fellow from Morgan State University. “Everyone here is so welcoming and so quick to share information. We’re hearing success stories and learning from every single person.”

“It’s important for us to share the knowledge of what we’re all doing,” said Collier Apgar, a student at JMU. “Then you know you’re not the only one trying to create change.”

These personal connections lasted throughout the day as the participants explored three businesses that are redefining downtown Harrisonburg: the BlueHub coworking space, jewelry entrepreneur Hugo Kohl, and Pale Fire Brewing Company. Students who hadn’t known one another 48 hours earlier were discussing projects and how to implement what they’d learned at JMU back at their own schools.

“Every time students get together in groups, dynamic things start happening,” said Nick Swayne, Executive Director of the 4-Virginia program and coordinator for the program at James Madison University. “Whether it was in the whiteboard clusters or other parts of the meetup, they were really talking—not just about flowery stuff, but how they’ll go back to their schools and make something big happen.”

The community that the Fellows created at the meetup is one that will last despite the distance between them. “Being in a peer community like this is continuing to be of more and more value to me,” said Bradley Dice, a Fellow at William Jewell College. “We really care about one another’s ecosystems and about transforming the whole of higher education and not just our own schools.”

The Art of Making

by Katie Dzugan


It was a cloudy, rainy day during finals week in April 2015 when we arrived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to visit 6 Fellows at the University of Pittsburgh (UPitt). UPitt is a sprawling, urban campus with beautiful stone buildings that spans 132 acres of city blocks. Campus was abuzz with students walking from building to building and occupying all the study spaces.

We met Fellows Nate Smialek, Brian Rhindress, Ian McIntyre, Madhur Malhotra, Jenny Sommer and David Jacob at the Innovation Institute, along with supporter Babs Carryer, Director of Education and Outreach. The Innovation Institute was recently launched through the Office of the Provost in 2013 to bring together major areas of innovation on campus: the Office of Technology Management, Office of Enterprise Development and the Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. This recent structure was put in place to build a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at UPitt, which fits with the mission of the Fellows and their faculty sponsor, Mary Besterfield-Sacre, and provides a neutral zone across campus to foster a hotbed of activity in regards to innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E).


In the main conference room, outfitted with whiteboards and smart TVs, we were able to learn about the recent projects the Fellows had undertaken. The first project was the Pitt Design Hub. The Design Hub is a student organization originally named Engineers for Sustainable Medical Devices (ESMD) that was created by Fellow (now UPitt alumna) Karuna Relwani. ESMD’s mission was to provide biomedical engineering students with hands-on experience working with physicians to design medical devices that physicians would actually use, from surgical mounts to brain stimulation. As the student organization grew, and more Fellows joined the crew at UPitt during the last year, ESMD has rebranded and grown into the Design Hub. The Design Hub has the same mission to still connect students to real-world projects and local physicians, but the student organization wanted to be more inclusive of other majors outside of biomedical engineering to reach all engineers and other majors, such as business.

Karuna Relwani presents at Open 2014

The second project we learned about was the freshman-level course the Fellows were involved with, “The Art of Making: Hands-on System Design and Engineering.”

“In this class, our goal was to teach concepts like ideation, rapid prototyping and design thinking along with promoting the maker culture,” said Madhur Malhotra, University Innovation Fellow. “Throughout the class, we introduced technologies like Arduino, LittleBits, Solidworks and so on. The final project involved combining such technologies and developing a cool and useful solution with them.”

During the semester, the students participating in the class turned the classroom into a mini makerspace with hardware, tool kits, low-resolution prototyping materials and more. Building this space and experiencing the class allowed the freshmen to be actively involved with learning the curriculum. In the final 3 weeks of the class, the students focused on a specific project of their choosing. These projects stemmed from interactive periodic tables to a pineapple that controlled the playing of a violin. The student projects were showcased on the outer wall of the classroom in the hallway by a projector displaying rotating images.


After catching up, we were able to get a tour of the engineering building, which is where the freshman class “Art of Making” is held (see photos of the classroom above), and where meetings for the Design Hub occur. We saw everything the students did and didn’t have access too, ranging from study spaces to classrooms and hallways to music studios. Interestingly, the hallways were a massive space for students to sprawl out and collaborate on projects or just to work and study, being at least 15 feet wide with whiteboard walls. Our visit was jam-packed with information and tours of campus and we were extremely excited that the Fellows made time for us during the busiest time of the semester.

After experiencing different adventures over the summer, the Fellows came back together to continue innovating the Pitt campus this fall. Updates since the summer include (provided by Madhur Malhotra):

  • Adding a unit to the “Art of Making” course focused on media and how to communicate a design/product effectively through visual media.
  • The Fall 2015 course was developed for upperclassman to spread the maker culture across other classes within UPitt’s engineering department.
  • 7 final projects from the “Art of Making” were presented at the bi-annual Design Expo.
There’s a lot of action through the Fellows at the University of Pittsburgh and we’re excited to see what the new year will bring. Keep up the great work!

P.S. This post was written during the UIF Roadtrip 2015

Orientation Forward: Beginning the Jewell Journey with Creativity and Innovation

“Here, we dream in verbs.” Bradley Dice, a University Innovation Fellow from William Jewell College, shares his perspective on an event his team held for the incoming class of students as part of Epicenter’s #uifresh initiative.

Sentences written by William Jewell's Class of 2019 in the "I Will" exercise.

Sentences written by William Jewell’s Class of 2019 in the “I Will” exercise.

by Bradley Dice
University Innovation Fellow, William Jewell College
This article was originally posted on

On Tuesday, August 25, University Innovation Fellows from William Jewell College hosted an Orientation workshop for the incoming class of students. This workshop is William Jewell’s first major event for #uifresh (University Innovation Freshmen), a nationwide initiative announced in March as a part of the White House Science Fair. The #uifresh initiative calls upon institutions of higher education to expose first-year students to design thinking, entrepreneurship, and innovation in order to attract and retain more students in STEM-related disciplines.

University Innovation Fellows candidates Trevor Nicks, Benjamin Shinogle, and Macy Tush introduced students to Design Thinking with methods from Stanford's renowned

University Innovation Fellows candidates Trevor Nicks, Benjamin Shinogle, and Macy Tush introduced students to Design Thinking with methods from Stanford’s renowned

As first-year students enter college, they are embarking on their own Jewell Journey. This “Journey” concept is a holistic view of a William Jewell education: cultivating critical thought, encouraging academic inquiry by engaging big ideas and conducting scholarly research, offering service and leadership as citizens within a local and a global context, and engaging the challenges of our world (philosophical, political, economic, social, scientific, and more) to make and implement meaning for ourselves and others.

Across these four adventurous years of college, it’s easy to adopt a “checklist” mentality. Each day of class is one step closer to the real world. Instead, what if we brought the real world into our education? What if we catalyzed a culture of self-starters, fearless and uninhibited innovators who view their education in more than a classroom setting and as more than a degree? How do we equip first-year students with the skills they need to make their dreams into reality? We asked them to share their vision for their Jewell Journey.

University Innovation Fellow Bradley Dice worked alongside faculty Ian Coleman, Blane Baker, and Shelly McVay to discuss the importance of mentorship and dreaming big from Day One.

University Innovation Fellow Bradley Dice worked alongside faculty Ian Coleman, Blane Baker, and Shelly McVay to discuss the importance of mentorship and dreaming big from Day One.

The “I Will” activity helped students put words to their ambitious visions. They crafted statements of their goals that will cascade and resonate through the layers of planning, purpose-finding, discovery, and self-exploration that occur across four years at William Jewell. Students began mapping their dreams to concrete resources like Journey Grants, academic clubs and social groups on campus, connections in Kansas City, and more. Discovering these doors of opportunity can be intensely challenging for a new student, so our rockstar faculty and University Innovation Fellows team provided insight on how to get connected, find mentors, and begin this Journey with the knowledge that their peers and professors are by their side every step of the way.

As University Innovation Fellows at William Jewell, we have begun to explore the intersection of liberal arts education with innovation, entrepreneurship, and design thinking. We are developing “maker” mindsets in socially-aware citizens, layering human-centered design on top of world-ready problem solvers, and catalyzing both deep expertise and broad experiences for our students at William Jewell. To learn more about our efforts, just reach out.



About the author: 

University Innovation Fellow Bradley Dice is a scientist, software developer, and advocate of open data. Currently a senior at William Jewell College in Kansas City, he is triple-majoring in Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics, and holds a strong passion for improving scientific methodology and business analytics through technology.


Do-Think-Make: Engage in Design Thinking & Creativity at Texas Tech

The Texas Tech University Innovation Fellows, composed of Marshall Head, Victoria Young, Valente Rodriguez, Taylor Persons, Francis Atore and Benjamin Simmons, were able to host an innovative thinking event on their university campus called Do-Think-Make. This event was similar to the activities at the recent University Innovation Fellows 2015 Annual Meetup.

The goal of the Do-Think-Make event was to:

  1. Encourage cross-pollination of ideas and information between students of different backgrounds
  2. Help students overcome the challenges brought about by being in unfamiliar situations and environments
  3. Show a fun and exciting way design thinking could be presented

Event participants composed of 40 students from the Honors College, engineering, wind sciences and South Plains College. The Do-Think-Make event was sponsored by the Edward E. Whitacre College of Engineering, National Wind Institute, Honors College, Group NIRE and South Plains College.

Held on April 18th from 10 am to 2 pm, the Do-Think-Make event began with a rock paper scissors warm-up, whereby the loser became a fan of the winning team until only two teams are left at the end. The students also took part in a table activity where they were asked to come up with eight ways to improve the innovative ecosystem on their campus. They then chose an idea they liked best and expanded on the idea. The table then voted on one another’s idea and the table clustered as a team around the idea with the most votes. The final idea was then graphically prototyped and pitched by the table to the rest of the groups. It was observed that innovative spaces were a popular theme, with 60% of the groups choosing it as their project of choice.

The students were then engaged in a creative sound exercise where they imitated and created new sounds with their peers, namely sound ball. Sound ball had the highest reviews, due to the fact that it initiated the most laughs and challenges. STEM majors do not often practice sound creation and imitation, and may be one reason it was the most challenging; however, it was also named as the “most fun” portion of the overall event.

At the end, as the students were taking part in a maker space design challenge, that constituted a physical prototype, we were joined by a member of the community who is currently in the process of building a community maker space. This member of the community was able to witness the raw energy of the students as they conveyed their needs and interests. The community maker space, namely Ubiquitous Labs, is envisioned to promote local entrepreneurs and complement design education in the local schools. The event then ended with a wind turbine challenge where students were given 45 minutes to design a wind turbine for a building.

The amount of ideas and prototypes generated within the 5 hour period was immense, but even more important were the bonds that were generated and ideas that were exchanged. It is currently a great time for the Lubbock community, as new technologies and practices emerge. Companies such as Wayne Brown Institute are collaborating with emerging startups to help them understand their venture readiness, while organizations such as Lubbock Economic Development Alliance (LEDA) are providing resources and incentives to retain innovative businesses. As departmental and community stakeholders continue to merge their strengths, the region will continue to grow, resulting in a lasting positive impact.

Penned by the South Plains College & Texas Tech University Innovation Fellows

/pen/ verb. past tense: penned
write or compose.

Hypothesis Affirmed! Greenville, SC Ignited By Southeastern Regional Meetup

Last week, we tested our hypothesis that we could bring together a group of Fellows with other college students interested in creativity, innovation and design thinking and replicate the energy of our Annual Meetup at Google and Stanford at a place very far from Silicon Valley. We chose Greenville, South Carolina. Why? Because two of our star University Innovation Fellows happen to be in that region: Ben Riddle of Furman University, and Bre Przestrzelski of Clemson University, and their amazingly supportive faculty sponsors Ross McClain (Department Chair, Art, Furman) and John Desjardin (Associate Professor, Bioengineering, Clemson). What ensued gave strong support to our hypothesis.

Ben and Bre’s work analyzing the Furman and Clemson Innovation & Entrepreneurship ecosystem informed their strategic plans to enhance that ecosystem (Furman Student Priorities, Clemson Student Priorities). They completed this work last year, over a 6-week WebEx-based program to become University Innovation Fellows and, as part of their training, flew to Google Headquarters and Stanford’s world-renowned (the Hasso Plattner Design Institute). Over three days, 88 Fellows from all over the nation soaked up the innovation culture in Silicon Valley and discussed ways to lead a movement in student innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship on their campuses (March 2014 agenda, and photos). The Annual Meetup was transformative; both Ben and Bre saw the opportunity to replicate the magic and attract peers on campus.

Again, why Greenville? Program leaders, over the year that followed, discovered just how cool of a community Greenville, SC is, as both Fellows reported back the success and overwhelming support they received from institutional and community leaders. Greenville has a strong history of public-private partnership dating back to the entrepreneurial Mayor Max, under whose leadership the city attracted a major Hotel Chain and narrowed a four-lane thoroughfare into the charming downtown Main Street filled with great restaurants, culture, art and more. So, when the pair invited Epicenter and its founders, Stanford University and VentureWell, to co-facilitate design thinking and lean startup sessions with local experts, program leaders enthusiastically agreed. Thus was born the plan for the…

Southeastern Regional Meetup, Hosted by Clemson University and Furman University

SEregionalsmallEpicenter organizers, University Innovation Fellow program leaders and Fellows flew in from California, Massachusetts, Colorado, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, New York and the Virgin Islands. Fellows drove from North Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and even as far away as Michigan and Massachusetts! They were joined by 20 Furman and 20 Clemson students. All had one thing in common: a desire to learn the techniques of design thinking and lean startup, two approaches used to develop strong human-centered ideas and develop scalable business models around them. Using real-world issues from the Greenville community, students applied new-found techniques in observation, empathy, brainstorming, prototyping, customer segmentation & value proposition development.

Students developed low-resolution prototypes and articulated real opportunities to improve Greenville – a more friendly main street and redesigning the eating experience. Students learned by doing and they discovered that their entrepreneurial mindset could be honed on real-world challenges in their local community. On the flip side, community members saw students as motivated and capable individuals who bring a fresh-perspective and an open mind to arrive at highly innovative and achievable solutions to their challenges. One student openly remarked during the debrief, “I learned more this weekend than in the entire semester,” a sentiment often heard by many who first encounter hands-on and experiential learning opportunities. The mood at the reception with community and academic leaders was one you’d see at a sporting event, as evident by the Bear Ninja Cowboy video posted below. This kind of enthusiasm for learning can transform our nation’s higher education institutions. We look forward to replicating this success in Washington D.C. and at UMD on November 1st and 2nd, ringing in National Entrepreneurship Month with an invitation only Meetup for 100 University Innovation Fellows. More on that soon!

~ Humera Fasihuddin, Co-director, University Innovation Fellows (on behalf of Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, Katie Dzugan & Laurie Moore)


A Big THANK YOU to our Collaborators and Supporters

We are extremely grateful to the many local community members, without whom, this past weekend would not have been possible:

Design Thinkers Group USA, especially Joel, Marc and Susan, for their tremendous efforts in co-designing and co-facilitating a two-day experiential learning experience with our colleague Leticia Britos Cavagnaro from Stanford.

John Desjardin, Clemson, for his awesome giant room-sized Business Model Canvas exercise, imparting Lean Startup skills to participants in an experiential way (and his moral support).

Ross McClain, Furman, for forging an unprecedented partnership between a liberal arts institution and a major research university (and his moral support).

OpenWorks, for being so accommodating and allowing us to use their open work space for our activities on Friday (see agenda below).

Greenville Health System, especially to Robin, for joining us to discuss what you should never do in an interview — and making it funny.

Clemson MBA at ONE, for giving us access to their swanky new space on Main Street.

Also a special shout out to Envision SC, the Spiro Institute, Ten at the Top, SCBio and all of our additional facilitators and guests of honor.

Fellows Southeastern Regional Meetup Collaborators and Sponsors

Fellows Southeastern Regional Meetup Collaborators and Sponsors

Fellows Southeastern Regional Meetup Agenda

Fellows Southeastern Regional Meetup Agenda

Innovation and Determination

University Innovation Fellow Atin Mittra led a service learning trip to the Dominican Republic’s Barrio Blanco and learned a lesson about determination in the process.

by Atin Mittra
University Innovation Fellow, University of Maryland College Park

Atin Mittra (left) with members of his design team during their spring trip to Barrio Blanco in the Dominican Republic.

As I embarked to lead an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic, I had no idea the next week would be a life changing experience.

The community we worked in was called Barrio Blanco, named after the man who started the community, Blanco. Blanco is around sixty years old, but his passion for maintaining the barrio makes him move like he’s twenty-five. A small neighborhood hidden away in the bustling tourist attraction of Cabarete, Barrio Blanco represents the determination of community organizers to withstand gentrification. The wealth and abundance that kissed the beachside resorts didn’t make it to the barrio. In fact, half a mile from the five star restaurants, people were walking on unpaved streets covered in trash.

The three service projects our group focused on were teaching children at the DREAM school, painting a mural on the entrance of the neighborhood, and making mobile garbage cans. The mobile trash can project was primed for the design thinking process.

The Problem: The entrance to the community was a quarter mile long with two cinderblock walls on either side. The opening was only wide enough for one large truck. The side streets were far too narrow for the truck to make its way around so the residents could either carry their garbage to the truck or throw it out in front of their house. By and large people chose the latter. As a result, trash lay undisturbed, free to enjoy the Dominican sun. Unfortunately, trash leaked into the nearby lagoon behind the houses, contaminating the water and causing health concerns for the residents. Upon learning about design thinking from the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMD, my co-trip leader and I quickly introduced the methodology into our facilitation identifying potential benefits of using it in a social context. I had hoped to give my twelve participants tools such as design thinking that would allow them to more easily tackle large-scale problems after the trip, a process known as activation.

The Task: Design and build eight mobile trash cans which can be pulled on unpaved, uneven streets and be light enough for children to pull.


Young-Ju and Atin measuring wheel placements

The Process: First, we observed. I jotted some preliminary ideas for the frame and wheel placement after our work was finished each day. I pulled two participants who displayed interest in the design process to help, Taylor and Young-Ju. It was imperative for both of them to share their opinion during the prototype and test phase. At first, both were hesitant to give their input. After relentlessly insisting they share their ideas, Young-Ju exclaimed, “I don’t know, I’m not an engineer like you, you know what you’re doing.” I was both shocked and relieved. Shocked because it felt like I was finally breaking through timid Young-Ju’s shell and relieved because this was something that I could tell was on both of their minds. “What does engineering have anything to do with this, we just need to solve a problem,” I explained turning the focus on the task at hand.

From that point on, they both opened up throughout the design process.


Team members attach a frame to a trash can

After numerous trips to the hardware store and shipping parts in fromPuerto Rico, we were finally ready to build all eight trash cans on our last day of service. It started at noon. To start building we created a six-person team. The inconsistent electricity made it difficult to make progress and it seemed like everything was standing between us and our goal. Through sheer determination we pushed forward. As people in the community saw us working, they began coming out of their houses to offer help. A group of men who ran a hardware business nearby stopped working in order to make sure we were adequately equipped to finish the project. Timid Young-Ju who had once held her tongue when asked her opinion now had no problem barking orders at other participants to ensure they were building the frames correctly. Wiping sweat away from my sleep deprived eyes, for a minute I observed at what was happening around me. There were at least a dozen people helping in some capacity now in an assembly line type fashion. My original design team acted as quality assurance. We even brought in someone else from the community to weld handles onto the sides of the can.

The schedule said to end work at 4:30 and head to a nice dinner on the beach, but we couldn’t leave until the job was finished. We finished the last can at 7:00pm as the sun forfeited its position above. Even though we were all battling heat exhaustion, sickness, and sleep deprivation, all ailments were buried the moment we finished. Accomplishment and satisfaction coagulated with the cool Dominican air. It felt like we just won the Super Bowl, everyone was in visible ecstasy. The community leaders invited us back the next day to give a proper thank you/goodbye.


Seven of the completed trash cans

The next evening we entered the barrio making the long walk to the school one last time. As soon as we began walking down the entrance, we heard the pitter patter of running children and in the distance tiny voices yelling “they’re here! they’re here!” in Spanish followed quickly by the muffled thuds of them running into and embracing us with their small arms. They guided us to the school where leaders of the community and kids alike prepared speeches for us. They praised us for the work we did but most of all for caring about the barrio. Everywhere I turned all I heard was “nunca te olvidare” (I will never forget you). I was blown away that people we had no idea existed just five days prior were now telling us we changed their lives. I couldn’t describe the way it felt when I heard the work I did impacted someone’s life. It was the greatest high I’ve ever felt. I ducked out of the party early to look at the trash cans one last time before we left.

As I headed back to our work site, I saw Blanco sitting there alone as if he knew I was coming. I looked up from Blanco’s silhouette to see all the garbage cans were gone. “Where are the garbage cans, Blanco?” I asked. In a calm voice he told me if I wanted to see them again, I’d have to walk around the whole community because they had already been put to use. I was speechless. Not even twenty-four hours after we finished the project, they were already serving their purpose. It was incredible to think through engineering and design thinking we were able to build something that would help this group of people we grew to love.


The final assembly team poses after finishing all eight trash cans

At times engineering can be nebulous and my mind would lay burdened by theory and formulas in class, but I wouldn’t have been able to help the residents of Barrio Blanco if not for those classes. It was amazing to be able to apply things from class to the real world and make a difference. It was also rewarding to be able to demystify engineering and design to non-STEM majorswho found instant utility from its principles. I will never forget how happy the residents of Barrio Blanco were. Our closeness to the community greatly aided the human centered piece of our design process. Not only did we want what we built to be used, but we cared so deeply about our friends in the barrio, that nothing but the best was acceptable. If you’re passionate enough about a project and you remain resolutely determined on achieving the goal, nothing can stop you.

Atin Mittra Atin Mittra is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park majoring in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Technology Entrepreneurship, graduating in 2014. he is passionate about social entrepreneurship and understanding social trends. Atin is also the Founder and Executive Director of MADE Microfinance, a non-profit that aims to build financial literacy and assets for people who are rejected by the traditional banking industry.

UIF News: Twitter Chat


Big Beacon has invited Epicenter back for a Twitter Chat! The topic will be design thinking in engineering. If you would like to join in, use #BigBeacon during the designated time and you will be able to follow the live conversation. Join the conversation by answering questions and chatting with other participants. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014
5 p.m. Pacific / 8 p.m. Eastern

Here is a link to Epicenter’s previous Twitter chat with Big Beacon.