Creating Change Agents: Denison Launches a Center for Innovation

Students in a workshop
Students participating in a design thinking workshop

Denison has amazing labs for building skills and deepening knowledge about chemical reactions, plant biology, or the physics of gravitation. But how do we practice the skills for solving problems in the human sphere?

Imagine a residence hall community coming together to craft a response when one of their members is anonymously harassed. Or a group of students from a political science class gathering to design and storyboard an innovative civic involvement campaign. Or a student determined to develop a strategy to improve the health of children in a Newark afterschool program.

To provide both the space and the support to tackle these challenges, Denison is launching a design lab, a center for creative problem-solving, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Like other campus labs, the Red Frame Lab has equipment, teachers, and a method—a uniquely Denison take on “design thinking.”

Design thinking describes a method used to solve complex, human-centered problems. It is solution- rather than problem-focused, and it relies on empathic listening, on generating lots of ideas (sometimes crazy, big ideas), and then testing the best to find the flaws early and make refinements for success. The method rests on the ability to ask the right question, to be an astute observer and listener, and to engage with others to incorporate multiple perspectives in hope of designing solutions that actually work.

The lab equipment? Whiteboards, chalkboard walls, and materials for thinking visually and “prototyping” and experimenting. There is space for putting heads together to assess problems and brainstorm ideas for solutions. Two staff members will coordinate the Red Frame Lab’s offerings and will work with individual students and groups as they take an idea from inception to execution. Students will find workshops on the elements of design thinking and entrepreneurship, both of which (as it happens) correspond with the way we think about leadership and civic agency at Denison—the marquee traits of Denisonians, both as students and as alumni who are changing the world.

In addition to the really cool tools available on campus (including 3D printers, laser cutters, etc.), the Red Frame Lab recognizes that the most precious problem-solving tool is our brain. We’re drawn to design thinking because, at its core, this method is about understanding the experience of others in order to design human-centered solutions. It’s also about empowerment and agency, recognizing that the best solutions come when everyday people work collectively to understand and respond to the needs of their community.

One of the basic tenets of design thinking is its “bias toward action.” This will delight Denisonians, who have a legacy of being creators, developers, entrepreneurs, and leaders within their communities. As Jessica Wang ‘11 wrote of her Denison experience,

I greatly improved as a thinker, a writer, and probably most importantly a do-er. At Denison if I wanted a change done, I did it. And I asked for help. This is how life is in the entire world, not just the Denison bubble. If you want something, you have to be willing to go for it.”

The Red Frame Lab will provide a structure and framework to guide students through this doing process. It remains true to our liberal arts mission while broadening the skills and knowledge students acquire at Denison. It’s one more way we hope to equip our students to change the world.

August 22, 2017