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A case for teaching with, about and through human-centered design

Sep 20, 2021, 14:22 PM

Each year, Dawn Bohn, a teaching associate professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, teaches the food science curriculum’s capstone course. The food product development course had always received high ratings on course evaluation surveys, and Bohn had always received positive comments.

“Until 2018,” she says in a short video.

That year, her scores plummeted.

“They did not feel an emotional connection to the course,” Bohn says of her students, whom she describes as ‘very high’ performers. “They couldn’t connect their field to the actual approach of the course. And so, I knew something had to change.”

As Bohn researched more effective ways of teaching the course, she came upon the human centered design (HCD) approach. In 2019, she started working with campus’ Seibel Center for Design (SCD) to incorporate it into her teaching.

“I was able to connect … and engage with the students,” Bohn reports enthusiastically, adding her students came to class wanting to engage with her, each other, and the course content. “In the end I was able to go from semester survey comments such as, ‘She is too demanding toward students. She’s trying to force all of our group’s development direction through her own thought,’ which was quite heartbreaking to read, to comments such as ‘She’s so empathetic, and this always made me so excited about this class.’

“At the end of the semester, the students had these wonderful, new, unique products that they can showcase to the world,” Bohn continues. “And oh, by the way, my scores went back to what I was used to obtaining … which made me feel like I made the right change.”

Saad Shehab, Seibel Center for Design’s head of assessment and research, shared the case study in his presentation, “The Pedagogy and Assessment of Human Centered Design,” on September 9 as part of the Fall 2021 Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar Series.

Shehab said SCD’s Assessment and Research Lab conducts research that “informs and evaluates our practice of teaching and learning human-centered design in formal and informal learning environments,” and is also working with other instructors on campus to help them integrate HCD into their teaching.

“I’m going to introduce this idea of teaching with, about, and through human centered design … to hopefully encourage you to integrate it into your own teaching,” he told the audience of faculty and other educators.

So, what is HCD?

“We see HCD as a problem-solving approach that uses design-thinking to identify needs and develop solutions,” Shehab said, adding the approach relies heavily on empathy and iteration. “Empathizing allows us to learn from and about the people, connect with those people, and figure out their needs and problems. Iterating allows us to experiment and learn from failure and continue to make progress in the right directions.”

Earlier, Shehab shared another video, showing how HCD is used in product development. The video introduces us to Emma Lawton—a graphic designer—who struggles to draw a square and write her name due to tremors caused by Parkinson’s Disease.

After meeting Emma, Haiyan Zhang—a computer scientist—is inspired by a spoon that uses vibrations to counteract tremors. She and her team create a bracelet-like device with vibrating motors that somehow distracts the brain and eases the tremors, allowing Emma to draw a straight line and print her name when wearing it.

“That has an impact on one person,” Shehab said, “but of course, we can imagine how this can be generalized and have a huge social impact.”

So why HCD in education?

Shehab said literature on HCD advocates its use in education because of two major reasons:

  • HCD provides authentic problem-solving contexts and features multi-disciplinary collaborations (Wrigley & Stalker, 2017; Wright & Wrigley, 2019).

    “That’s the best part about it, and that’s what we see happening in our building in the past two or three months,” Shehab said. “Students can engage effectively, and they are motivated for these learning experiences.”

  • And HCD can help students develop 21st century skills and mindsets (Goldman et al, 2012; Koh et al, 2015).

“These skills and mindset…such as human-centeredness and collaboration and creativity … align with what is noted in many, many educational reform documents and in current employers’ demands,” Shehab said.

Besides Bohn, Shehab said SCD is also working with other instructors on campus across various disciplines to successfully implement HCD strategies and assessment their courses.

So what is meant by teach with, about, and through HCD? For those answers, how to put concepts into practice, as well as a number of resources to get started, watch the recording of Shehab’s presentation.

“Teachers are designers,” Shehab said. “We are the best designers in my opinion. We design learning experiences that make people better. That’s how I see teaching. That’s why I love it.”

Please join the Center for Innovation in Teaching & Learning for The Art of Teaching: Lunchtime Seminar featuring CITL Faculty Fellows and other exemplary faculty discussing teaching practices that highlight the art and science of teaching and learning.

The series takes place on the first Thursday of the month from12 to 1 pm. For more information or to suggest a speaker or topic, please contact Ava Wolf at