Published 07/27/17

It starts with the IDEA. The Evolution of Design Thinking Education at Bryant

SMITHFIELD, RI — Each January, before the spring semester begins, all members of the new freshman class—feeling curious, excited, and maybe a little apprehensive—gather for the first day of IDEA (Innovation and Design Experience for All) to hear this from Professor Mike Roberto, Trustee Professor of Management, Director for the Center for Program Innovation, and IDEA co-founder: “The purpose of this program is for you to actually take charge of your learning process for three days and go do what you want to do. BUT, with a process that the leading innovators in the world use.”

"It’s really forward-thinking for Bryant to be infusing this into the curriculum for freshmen."

From there, students are off on a three-day, high-energy, low-sleep, design thinking adventure that sets the foundation for the next four years. IDEA is a rigorous and immersive, design thinking boot camp that enables first-year students to stretch beyond their comfort zones and prepare for success at college and beyond.

“Our mission is to educate and inspire the innovative leaders for the future,” said Bryant University President Ronald K. Machtley . “Through innovations in what we teach and how we teach it, IDEA creates the foundation for students to learn how to think and apply what they’ve learned in creative ways that generate significant positive change.”

The IDEA program offers a new way of teaching and learning that has catalyzed a larger movement at Bryant. Having just completed its fifth year, IDEA has evolved to far more than a design thinking course. It’s part of a broad institutional initiative to reimagine higher education through design thinking and innovation. Bryant’s award-winning  Academic Innovation Center (AIC) , opened in September 2016, has become a program hub.


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A new way of teaching, a new kind of space

It was the IDEA program that led Bryant leaders and faculty to recognize that this new way of teaching would require a new kind of space. What came next was a five-year design thinking process that resulted in the new  Academic Innovation Center . The new space provides the classrooms, breakout rooms, whiteboards, and technology, similar to spaces at IDEO, Apple, and Google, enabling students to fully experience an energizing and productive creative process.

Faculty Innovators

IDEA is the brainchild of a cadre of staff and faculty from both the College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences, and each year the team has refined the program to optimize student learning.

“As we’ve made adjustments over the years, the students have seen how we practice what we preach about continuous improvement,” said Trustee Professor of Management and Director of the Bryant Center for Program Innovation Michael Roberto, D.B.A., a co-founder of the program . “While the program organizers intended the focus to be on the process, freshmen blew by the process and concentrated on the project outcome that first year. We knew we had to fix that misplaced focus,” said Roberto. The biggest challenge with teaching design thinking is getting the students comfortable with not knowing the answer, and that they will likely fail before they succeed. The design thinking process trains students to discover an answer that didn’t exist before, and that’s innovation.”

Alumni, mentors, and judges

Another refinement came after the first year when the students expressed the desire to have more interaction with alumni and business leaders to enhance the real-world experience of the program. So, the faculty team recruited and judges and alumni mentors from all over the country. Bryant upperclassmen who have been through the program also serve as peer mentors.

“I’ve taken IBM-sponsored classes on innovative ways of problem solving. It’s really forward-thinking for Bryant to be infusing this into the curriculum for freshmen,” said Andrew Corrado ’87, Senior Vice President, Group Director, Signature Bank in Melville, NY. Corrado’s son Andrew Jr. ’20 participated in IDEA in 2017.

“I had mentors and people who helped me be successful. It’s now my time to come back and help mentor the future leaders of our country,” said Jeffrey Fryer ’91, P ’19, Vice President and Chief Tax Officer at Alexion Pharmaceuticals, a global biotechnology company that develops treatments for devastating rare diseases.

Wild ideas and failing fast to succeed sooner

Design thinking “transforms the way organizations develop products, services, processes, and strategy,” according to  Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO , a Palo Alto, CA-based global design company and pioneer of the design thinking methodology.

The IDEA process guides students through the IDEO’s process for creative problem-solving that follows six steps: observation, ideation, rapid prototyping, user feedback, iteration, and implementation.

Students mobilize to their field locations where they conduct research and document their observations. Then it’s back to the campus for ideation, experimentation, and rapid prototyping. Breakout rooms across the campus are transformed into dynamic ideation laboratories covered in sticky notes and other tools to spark creative thinking. The process and the faculty encourage the students to think wild ideas. Refrains of “Fail fast to succeed sooner” echo throughout campus for the duration of the program. Once they’ve developed their ideas, the students synthesize them into a five-minute presentation without the aid of PowerPoints or poster boards. They are on the hot seat as they present their ideas, and even more importantly, the thinking that led to their recommendations. 

Replicating Silicon Valley

“We’re teaching students about design thinking, but there’s a much bigger take-away,” said Roberto “There’s a different way of teaching and learning that’s not about professors lecturing to their students or case studies. We create a start-up atmosphere as we try to replicate Silicon Valley for three days.” 

The impact: employers are taking notice

Renee Lawlor ’15 , a former student mentor, said that the IDEA program was the best part of her Bryant education. Now in the role of Launch Manager at the IDEO spinoff company PillPack, Lawlor recognizes that “every day I have to be nimble as my job changes, plans change, and needs change as we work to make the product, service and experience better for the customer.” She adds, “My Bryant experience prepared me for this.”

“IDEA really opened my eyes. I learned to step back and go through the whole process – something that is really helping me in my career,” said Tyler Donovan ’15, a Financial Analyst at Bose Corporation and a 2nd Lieutenant-Platoon Leader in the Rhode Island National Guard. “Prospective employers were very interested in learning about my experience with IDEA.”

Ashley Chabot ’16 , Analyst Relations Manager at Dell, learned the skills needed to become an innovative problem-solver through IDEA. During one of her interviews for her first post-graduation position at EMC, she was asked a question about innovation and how she would approach solving a problem. “I eagerly discussed my IDEA experiences, and I believe this contributed to the reasons I was offered the job,” she said.

A 154-year tradition of innovation

Keeping with Bryant’s  154-year tradition of innovation , Bryant leaders and faculty continue to look ahead to ensure that students and the organization are well prepared to thrive no matter what the future holds. Higher education is changing, and Bryant is positioned to lead that change by developing curricula, pedagogies, and delivery systems that will prepare students for success, and create a legacy for generations to come.

Learn more at  INNOVATION.BRYANT.EDU .