Teaching Atlanta Teachers About Design Thinking

Wayne Li, center, uses a white board during a class for Mount Vernon teachers.
Wayne Li, center, teaching Mount Vernon teachers design thinking and ways to use design as a method for innovation.

Mount Vernon, a private K-12 school in Atlanta, turned to Georgia Tech's School of Industrial Design to learn about innovative human-centered product design methods. Wayne Li, the James L. Oliver Professor of the Practice of Design and Engineering, joined by two other representatives from Georgia Tech’s Design Bloc, leads the workshops designed help teachers incorporate design thinking into their classes.

Teachers from the Mount Vernon School in Sandy Springs, Georgia, said they want to integrate current design thinking practices into their school's curriculum. The school operates the Mount Vernon Institute For Innovation (MVIFI), which offers an Innovation Diploma “showing you’ve taken additional lessons specifically in design,” Professor Li explains. MVIFI previously received a grant to work with Stanford Design School in creating a downloadable playbook for their design thinking.

Now, Mount Vernon has received a Ford grant to get advanced training from SID’s Design Bloc. This fall, 13 faculty members from Mount Vernon will attend a series of 16 workshops held in the School of Industrial Design, where they will learn advanced design thinking skills. The faculty represent Mount Vernon’s administration, Middle School (grades 5 through 8), and Upper School (grades 9 through 12).

Bo Adams, the Chief Learning and Innovation Officer, Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, and Executive Director of MVIFI, appreciates that this partnership will benefit the young minds at the school: “Our learners engage in phenomenal projects with real-world implications, and they have been craving opportunities to take this work to a next level,” Adams remarks. “The partnership with Design Bloc allows us to build capacity in advanced design thinking methods so that our efforts and leadership can continue to grow and forward our goal to design a better world.” 

The Design Bloc team leading the instruction includes Professor Li; Trevor Hyman, a Master of Industrial Design student; and Richard Lee, a Georgia Tech graduate who works as a Cybersecurity Specialist for AT&T.

Faculty will learn how to integrate human-centered design into their product development. Professor Li is emphatic that design thinking should address the real needs of individuals. “A design idea ultimately won’t be very helpful if it doesn’t correspond to the needs of the actual people who will be using it,” Li said. “While a good design might look beautiful, it must also have functionality.” Workshops include lessons on observation and interview techniques. This ethnographic research encourages faculty to think about how individuals will use products as well as what makes products visually appealing. “Design thinking makes creators contextually aware,” he said.

Hyman adds that design must also address philanthropic impulses. “Mount Vernon faculty are practicing this product design process with an overarching project that looks to solve global issues related to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals,” he explains. “Faculty across grade levels and academic disciplines are using their individual skill sets to contribute their own unique ideas in order to creatively approach these issues.”

The program consists of five modules: Research, Visualize, Make, Test, and Implement. After studying ethnographic research methods, faculty learn how to build digital prototypes based on identified user needs. In the final unit, Hyman remarks, “we'll take those two-dimensional digital concepts and teach the faculty how to move up from popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners to foam core models and ultimately to 3D printed parts.”

This program also reflects a collaboration with industry. Because of Mount Vernon’s prestige, companies often reach out to MVIFI for partnerships. Students act as consultants, drafting briefs, offering workshops, and providing advice to corporations on how to improve their design strategies. MVIFI students have worked with AT & T, Porsche North America, and the Centers for Disease Control, among others.