Watch a brief video about the Pedagogy in Practice on this topic.

Design thinking (also referred to as human centered design) is a framework for critical thinking and creative problem solving, both of which are key skills for the 21st century regardless of profession. The framework has been used in a variety of contexts – from product and service design (business, engineering, design) to the arts, education, social innovation, and healthcare fields. A key idea from design thinking is to create ‘T’ shaped people – where the vertical part of the ‘T’ represents expertise (e.g., a major/minor) and the horizontal part of the ‘T’ represents a common language for collaboration and innovation. As such, design thinking is a truly interdisciplinary framework.

Design thinking is a deliberate, structured process for solving problems and fostering innovation (Mintz, 2017). It begins with a focus on the ‘user’ – in the case of higher education, that usually means students – and their challenges and pain points. Design thinking is a way to design learner centered initiatives. In addition to being a useful framework to teach students to sharpen their problem-solving skills, it is also a useful framework for designing an engaged student experience. Previous work with design thinking in educational environments revealed effective educational interventions and theory (Easterday et al., 2014; Van den Akker et al., 2005). Design thinking has been used in a variety of contexts from assessing leadership programs (Banter et al., 2020) to designing honors courses (Chaney et al., 2020) and while there has been some research on the efficacy of design thinking in K-12, the work for higher education and student engagement is just beginning. Which makes this a perfect opportunity.

When considering how design thinking can be used in higher education, there are three lenses to explore. First, faculty can use the design thinking framework and tools as an engaging way to provide students with a problem-solving toolkit. For example, in the Design for Social Impact honors colloquia, students use design thinking (and systems thinking) to explore a community problem such as food insecurity that allows them to aggregate their expertise toward designing effective solutions. In Team Dynamics, students use design thinking to explore a problem that work teams commonly face and develop some solutions for those work teams.

Second, faculty can use design thinking as a deeper part of the curriculum. For example, IdeaFactory is working with the TCU School of Medicine. In this collaboration, we are embedding design thinking into the first- and third-year curriculum. In the first year, design thinking is taught as part of the Future Accelerators of Medicine and Beyond course using a design sprint over one week (approximately nine hours over three days). Medical students were highly engaged in designing new solutions, while also building community with their new colleagues. For third year students, designing thinking will be a key framework in the Preparation for Practice course that highlights the intersection of social determinants of health in community-based projects. We kick off the product with a design intensive week after Thanksgiving and then coach six teams of 10 students working in three local under-resourced communities through March. Additionally, we have used design thinking with the Neeley Leaders Program as a framework for their impact projects.

Third, faculty can use design thinking to center the course on the student needs and experiences to maximize the learning and engagement in class. For example, one early use of ideation had students designing aspects of the course based on what they felt were the best class experiences they have had in the past. In an introductory management course, students had to identify a problem they experience on campus and apply design thinking techniques and management principles to solve that problem. When students choose projects that solve problems they personally experience, they are much more invested in the process and outcome. Student ‘voice and choice’ has been found to effectively increase engagement in a wide variety of educational contexts from Physical Education to STEM courses (Hastie et al., 2013; Sahin 2015)

The goals of the initial workshop included: to introduce a student-centered design framework that provides a pathway for critical thinking and creative problem solving; to learn ways that design thinking can be used to create deeper learning experiences in class and to learn ways to teach elements of design thinking to students in order for them to increase their creative confidence. However, there is much to do. So, IdeaFactory is launching a “Community of Practice” dedicated to Design for Teaching and Learning. We want to continue the conversation beyond this semester and provide a platform for faculty and staff who are teaching students to share and learn from each other. We hope you will join us. Stacy Grau ( and Tracey Rockett ( are co-directing this effort. Please email either for more information.


Banter, J., Egan, J., Hayes, K., Phillips, B. (2020). Using design thinking as a student centered approach to enhance an undergraduate leadership program. Journal of Leadership Education, 19(13), 70-74.

Chaney, B., Christensen, T., Crawford, A., Ford, K., Godwin, W. (2020). Best practices in honors pedagogy: Teaching innovation and community engagement through design thinking. Honors in Practice, 16, 71-92.

Easterday, M. W., Lewis, D. R., & Gerber, E. M. (2014). Design-based research process: Problems, phases, and applications. Proceedings of International Conference of the Learning Sciences, ICLS, 1(January), 317-324.

Hastie, P. A., Rudisill, M. E., & Wadsworth, D. D. (2013). Providing students with voice and choice: Lessons from intervention research on autonomy-supportive climates in physical education. Sport, Education and Society, 18(1), 38-56.

Mintz, S. (2017, February 1). Design thinking. Inside Higher Ed.

Sahin, A. (2015). STEM students on the stage (SOS): Promoting student voice and choice in STEM education through an interdisciplinary, standards-focused project based learning approach. Journal of STEM Education, 16(3).

Van den Akker, J., Gravemeijer, K., McKenney, S., Nieveen, N. (2006). Introducing educational design research. In J. Van den Akker, K. Gravemeijer, & N. Nieveen (Eds.), Educational design research (pp. 3-8), Routledge.

Stacy Landreth Grau Tracey Rockett

This article was written by Stacy Landreth Grau, Ph.D., Professor of Entrepreneurship & Innovation Practice, Neeley School of Business and Director, IdeaFactory, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, and Tracey Rockett, Ph.D., Professor of Management Practice, Neeley School of Business for the Spring 2022 Issue of Insights.