Published 03/11/16

IDEA: A proven catalyst for teaching creative problem solving

To tackle a wide array of real-world challenges – from getting people to stop texting while driving to re-imagining mall food courts – Bryant first-year students immerse themselves in a fast-paced, intensive, three-day experiential learning program each January, just before the start of second semester. Innovation and Design Experience for All (IDEA) engages students in design thinking – a process of observation, brainstorming, and rapid prototyping that is used by pioneering companies around the world.

Now in its fourth year, the hands-on, action-based program is a signature piece of the University’s nationally recognized First-Year Gateway program, which has been cited by Hanover Research, a global information services firm, as “providing a comprehensive example of the development and practices of first-year students.”

IDEA encourages first-year students to:

  • Explore innovation and the design thinking process while learning about their work styles, team dynamics, and how to gather information, formulate questions, and develop hypothesis;
  • Learn the value of trial and error through rapid prototyping;
  • Generate creative solutions to real-world challenges faced by organizations ranging from the arts and social services to education and the business sector;
  • Establish mentorship relationships with faculty, upperclassmen, alumni, and other members of their class.

"We energize learning ... by building a sense of passion and enthusiasm for real-world education."

IDEA brings the entire University community together. Faculty, staff, and alumni and student mentors challenge students to think outside the box and to change how they approach a problem. Working in teams, the students brainstorm innovative solutions, careful not to dismiss any ideas as too wild. They then explain the process that led them to their recommended solutions to business and community leaders, including faculty and accomplished alumni who offer valuable feedback.

“Through IDEA, we energize learning, and we do it by building a sense of passion and enthusiasm for real-world education. We foster teamwork, and we build relationships – strong ones – among mentors and first year-students,” says Trustee Professor of Management and Director of the Bryant Center for Program Innovation Michael Roberto, D.B.A., a co-founder of the program.

IDEA was the brainchild of a cadre of staff and faculty from both the College of Business and the College of Arts and Sciences, and Roberto remains at the forefront of this constantly evolving program. This year, he notes, senior student-mentors, who were among the first-year students in the inaugural IDEA program, “saw how we practice what we preach about continuous improvement.”

President Machtley with team “While organizers thought the program was all about the process, freshmen blew by the process and concentrated on the project that first year,” says Roberto. “They were passionate about the projects, but we knew we had to fix that misplaced focus.”

First-year students now delve deeply into the process, and they don’t find out what their projects will be until after dinner the first night. During the objective observation portion of the program, a difficult and sometimes uncomfortable skill to master, students are asked to observe what is happening without making assumptions or allowing biases to interfere. Says one student participant, “I learned that is it instinctive as humans to look at something and quickly jump to a conclusion about it.”

"If everyone is contributing, the more likely we are to find an idea that just might change the world.” 

Students also expressed a desire to interact with alumni and community leaders – and have real conversations. The IDEA team heard them and “recruited an army of 150 judges,” says Roberto.

One of those judges was Nancy DeViney ´75, an Active Honorary Bryant Trustee who recently retired as Vice President for Strategy and Solutions at IBM after 40 years of experience in the information technology and services industry. “The students were able to clearly frame the problem they were trying to solve and to describe the design thinking process they used,” she says, “from gathering direct input from key stakeholders all the way through brainstorming, identifying solutions, and then iterating to finalize the solution design. And, they were committed to the feasibility of their final designs and the potential benefits their clients could realize.”

Notable benefits of design thinking

Although design thinking is embraced by industry leaders such as Apple and Google, it is a process that can be used by any size organization. Employers take notice, and Bryant graduates with knowledge of design thinking stand out among their peers.

One of those IDEA advantages, explains Tyler Holden ’14, now with The Hartford, is the opportunity to overcome failure, to learn how to persevere where others might buckle.

“How do you pivot? This is absolutely imperative in a company,” says Holden, who served as an IDEA student-mentor last year and as an alumni-mentor this year. “You are always going hit budget and scope constraints. How do you pivot and say, ‘We’re going to put that on the back burner for now and look at this other solution that could be potentially optimal, then bring both solutions together and see how that could potentially create a better solution for the company?’”

"Prospective employers were very interested in learning about (IDEA) and my experiences."

Finance major Tyler Donovan ’15, a Financial Analyst at Bose Corporation and a 2 nd Lieutenant-Platoon Leader in the Rhode Island National Guard, recalls that “IDEA really opened my eyes. Before the program, I always rushed to a solution. I learned to step back and go through the whole process – something that is really helping me in my career.”

Being an IDEA mentor in his junior and senior years allowed Donovan to stand out in employment interviews. “IDEA is a unique program. Prospective employers were very interested in learning about it and my experiences,” he says. “As a mentor, I realized that sometimes even the best leaders need to step back and be followers."

As a first-year student, Marketing major Ashley Chabot ’16, who will join the corporate marketing department at EMC after graduation, was part of a team that came up with inventive ways for Providence theaters to attract more patrons and donors. She learned observation and brainstorming techniques that challenge the way people typically think. She also explored the skills needed to become an innovative problem-solver.

Chabot served for the second time as an IDEA student-mentor this year. During one of her interviews with EMC, she was asked a question about innovation and what approach she would take to problem solving. “I eagerly discussed my IDEA experiences,” she says. “I believe this contributed to the reasons I was offered the job.”

Alumni judge with team Engaging with students for a second time as an alumni judge this year was Jeffrey Fryer '91 P'19 (left, speaking with a student team),Vice President and Chief Tax Officer for Alexion Pharmaceuticals, a global biotechnology company that develops treatments for devastating and rare diseases.

IDEA, he says, “is a great way to take real-world business problems, bring them into the classroom, and allow the students to work through them. Using design innovative thinking, they can really attack those problems and look for ways to solve them in an environment similar to what happens in the real world.”

The IDEA program so impressed Christina Shaw ’10 that she asked to share it with her employer. Shaw, who served as a Recent Alumni Trustee from 2010-2013, first learned about the program in a presentation to Bryant’s Board by Professor Roberto.

“Differentiation starts with people ... who know how to ... try and find a new way to do something.” 

“I really appreciated the proactive measures being taken to prepare students to think differently about solutions to real problems,” says Shaw. “I learned a great deal more about IDEA in conversations with Professor Roberto over the years, seeing presentations about the students’ involvement, and in recent discussions between Professor Roberto and my employer,” Suffolk Construction in Boston.

When Shaw, a Management major who graduated with the highest GPA in her class, interviewed for a position last year with Suffolk – known for its transformative approach to business – she mentioned the IDEA program as a potential resource to support innovation learning and research. Hired as a Strategic Initiative Project Manager in the company’s Innovation Strategy Group, Shaw asked Suffolk’s Chief Innovation Officer how the company could pursue this opportunity. Following a conference call with Roberto, Shaw, and a team from Suffolk – and impressed by the knowledge and skills that Bryant students take away from the experience – the company sent a group to Bryant to attend a Design Thinking Simulation with Roberto.

IDEA project brainstorm “Businesses are always looking to differentiate themselves from the competition to communicate their value proposition to consumers,” says Shaw. “Differentiation starts with people – people who know how to innovate, who know how to think outside the box and turn the box upside down and inside out to try and find a new way to do something.”

Through IDEA, Applied Mathematics and Statistics major Courtney Mansfield ’16 says she “discovered that wild ideas I originally thought were ridiculous were indeed feasible. The program taught me that if I want to be innovative, I have to do things that have never been done before. Now, in almost any group setting, I try to teach others that no idea is too crazy. It is those ideas that end up being the forefront of innovation.”

Mansfield, who served as a student-mentor last year, was part of the IDEA Leadership Team this year. When it came to working with different personality types, Mansfield learned to treat everyone equally. “As an introvert, I often sit quietly and observe my surroundings before I contribute ideas to a project. That used to hurt me because others would take control of a project before I could contribute.

“Now, I look at my counterparts as equals and contribute when necessary – even if is it out of my comfort zone. If that equal playing ground is set from the beginning, diverse personalities are more likely to participate because they won’t feel as if their contributions are immediately dismissed.

“And, if everyone is contributing, the more likely we are to find an idea that just might change the world.”