Introduction to Socially Engaged Design: C-SED Goes Virtual

In March, as units across Michigan’s campus quickly found ways to bring their curriculum and programming online, most were preparing for a short-term solution: with only a few weeks left of the semester, the goal was to finish as best we could in unprecedented circumstances.

At the College of Engineering, administrators began looking ahead to the long-term effects of COVID-19 on future opportunities for students. As classes started to wind down in the winter semester, the college put out a call for programming that would allow students to come together virtually and engage with complex topics in the spring and summer semesters.

“At C-SED, we had already transitioned the Innovation in Action Finals to a virtual showcase and made the decisions to cancel most of the fieldwork for the X55 “Finding Genuine Design Opportunities” course and Summer Studio to be cautious,” said Charlie Michaels, Associate Director for Experiential Learning at C-SED. “This left us wondering how we could take our expertise and contribute to the curricular landscape in a meaningful way.” 

In particular, the team at C-SED wondered: is there an opportunity for socially engaged design to play a role in uncovering shared priorities and needs as local ecosystems search for sustainable approaches to doing business in the “new normal”? We wanted to start locally — specifically — small businesses and their employees in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti.

Intro to Socially Engaged Design: A One-Week Intensive

What came from this broad question was a fully remote one-week, two-credit intensive course called “Introduction to Socially Engaged Design” May 4 – 8, 2020. The goal of the course was to engage students from across the university in listening, learning and identifying insights through conversations with stakeholders on an opportunity relevant to them and their community.

19 students from five schools and colleges spent the week learning the basics of the socially engaged design process through the lens of the challenge question, “How might we support the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti area to uncover needs and address challenges that the ripple effects of COVID-10 will have on small businesses?” 

With this broad question in mind, the “Intro to Socially Engaged Design” course walked students through topics ranging from ecosystem mapping and data gathering to basic prototyping and even storytelling. “We were excited to build this course in a one-week format,” said Ann Verhey-Henke, Strategic Director at C-SED. “We teach and practice a lot of these skills in other programs at C-SED, but it was eye-opening to see students pick up these skills in real time and build on them with community stakeholders in such a short time frame.” 

Leveraging expertise from across campus was a key factor in pulling this course together in a short time frame. Michael Gordon, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor Professor of Business Administration at the Ross School of Business, served as an introductory interviewee for the challenge and provided insights on the business lens. Colleagues from the Ginsberg Center contributed to a discussion about social identity and privilege.

The virtual classroom

While you can usually find programming in the C-SED space on North Campus to be filled with white boards, sharpies, and post-its, this one-week intensive required new tools and lots of planning. To facilitate this new format, hosted entirely on Zoom, the facilitation team utilized a digital tool called MURAL. As a virtual collaboration tool, MURAL provided a space that acted as a “main classroom,” as well as ‘boards’ for each group as they pursued their work throughout the week. 

Icebreakers, energizers, regular breaks, and daily reflection were essential in the structure of this course. “One of the things we realized early on was that we wouldn’t have the natural ‘energy in the room’ that these types of events normally generate. So we intentionally planned regular breaks, as well as different ways of engaging with the material we were presenting and discussing,” says Verhey-Henke. Structured time for post-it generation allowed for quiet reflection, while open-ended conversations left room for collaboration and discussion. 

Throughout the week, teams practiced interviewing stakeholders, gathering & synthesizing data, clustering information, and pulling out insights from their exploratory work. Ecosystem and stakeholder mapping provided the foundation for understanding the challenge they were tackling.

What started as a broad question slowly became a series of insights through interviews with community stakeholders: 

  • Funding assistance for small businesses
  • Transparency and leadership at all levels of government 
  • Challenges of re-opening small businesses
  • Unknown factor of how consumer behavior may change after re-opening
  • Importance of community support and local resources
  • Need for support for marginalized communities and BIPOC-owned businesses
  • Importance of putting people first and businesses second

These insights became sketches…

Sketches came to life with prototypes created by each team:

What’s next

“While it was a lot to coordinate and pull together in a short period of time, we were thrilled with how everything came together,” says Verhey-Henke. “We have been looking ahead to future opportunities to offer a course of this scope in the coming semesters.”

If you’re interested in participating in our next intensive, or hosting workshops on similar topics, please join our mailing list below and get in touch! You can learn more about the programming we offer here, or schedule Open Office Hours with C-SED staff here.

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