Stanford's unique approach to teaching problem solving

Editor's Note: Jim Patell's full 30-minute profile will air on CNN's "The Next List" Saturday, May 18th, at 2:30 P.M. ET.

By James M. Patell, Special to CNN

Last week, at the invitation of my niece Alexis, I video chatted with a sixth grade class in the South Jefferson Middle School about a unique course I teach. Design for Extreme Affordability is a graduate-level course at Stanford in which interdisciplinary teams design new products and services, together with the associated implementation plans, for the world’s poor.

The class, offered jointly by the Graduate School of Business and the Mechanical Engineering Department, is now finishing its tenth year; by this June, we will have completed 90 projects with 27 partners in 18 countries. Cumulatively, these projects were conducted by 365 students from 27 programs across Stanford, including all seven schools: Business, Earth Sciences, Education, Engineering, Humanities and Sciences, Law, and Medicine.

One thing the middle schoolers wanted to know was why we had chosen to mix students from various fields to work on the projects instead of limiting it to just engineers.

    They aren't the first to wonder. Conducting a truly interdisciplinary course is challenging for the instructors and for the students. The various schools have different grading systems, different registration systems and so on. Even the simple logistics of finding a class time-slot is difficult, because each department has its own norms that dictate which times of which days are reserved for required courses and other mandatory tasks. Why bother?

    Having fresh eyes and child-like curiosity is important. Seeing the world through different lenses also is important. Our engineering students recognize systems of forces and flows, while our business students see intersecting webs of potential consumers and producers. Medical students envision vectors of transmission for disease or treatment, while our international policy students identify competing interest groups. The different frameworks that they use to model causal relationships, and the different “mental filing systems" and vocabularies they use to store and express their impressions, allow us to gain “3-D empathy” for our users, before we conduct the first brainstorm or build the first prototype.

    One of the founding tenets of the d.school (the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) is human-centered design. Rather than beginning with shiny new technology, we start by trying to establish deep, personal empathy with our users to determine their needs and wants. We must fill in two blanks: Our users need a better way to ___ BECAUSE ___. The because portion is a big deal.

    We are working across cultures, across geographies, across political systems and across myriad differences in the contexts of daily life. The hardest lesson for designers to remember is that we are not designing for ourselves. We must listen carefully and we must watch carefully. We must ask polite but probing questions about those elements of our users’ lives that strike us as "curious.”

    We cannot assume we understand their preferences. We cannot assume that they can articulate those preferences in terms we will understand. We cannot assume that our users will emphasize elements that are so deeply ingrained in their daily existence that, from their perspective, "go without saying." And we cannot assume that they are aware of the full menu of possibilities from which they could be choosing new ways of doing and living.

    Getting interdisciplinary teams to work well is not easy. We try to model the behavior we need in the teaching team, which consists of a business school professor, a mechanical engineering professor, a business entrepreneur, a practicing clinical psychologist and a recent graduate of the medical school.

    I am the Business School representative. My colleague Professor David Beach is a revered teacher in mechanical engineering and the patriarch of the Product Realization Laboratory -- the "machine shop" in which our teams' physical prototypes become real. Mr. Stuart Coulson is a high-tech serial entrepreneur who founded and sold two companies before volunteering to join the teaching team five years ago.

    Dr. Julian Gorodsky has been a psychological counselor to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and companies for several decades, and previously served as a field assessment psychologist for Peace Corps trainee groups. Dr. David Janka took the course as a fourth-year medical student two years ago, and then joined the teaching team as a design fellow, the sixth Design for Extreme Affordability alum to do so. Ms. Joan Dorsey and now Ms. Rita Lonhart have been the coordinators who keep the course on an even keel.

    As with the students, even finding a time we all can meet is a challenge, but we have come to appreciate the different perspective that each member brings in selecting course partners, deciding which students to admit, determining where we need to up our game as teachers, and especially in counseling teams who are struggling.

    We have a straightforward mission statement: every student deserves a great educational experience, and every course partner deserves a great new product or service. We are convinced that interdisciplinary teams, of both students and instructors, give us a better shot at achieving those goals.