Earlier this month, Mary Joyce DeVirgilio asked her fifth-grade students to work in teams to design a dream house for her – allowing the fantasy that cost is not an issue for a Catholic school teacher.

The young charges combined her basic requirements, such as an ocean view, with their best ideas. Their imaginations ran wild, from the thoughtful: an arts and crafts room, a stained-glass elevator, a golden dome; to the fanciful: a palm tree treehouse, a helipad, a private cruise ship harbor; to the truly eclectic: a donut maker, a roller coaster, a pig farm.

The teams whipped out the ideas onto colored post-it notes at furious speed. They could pare back to the best and more realistic notions in the later steps. What matters is how deeply engaged they become in a creative process called design thinking.

“What I love best about this is that it’s student-driven,” said DeVirgilio, an art teacher at St. Vincent DePaul grade school in Fort Wayne, Ind. “If I’d just told them to draw my dream house, they would have been bored. Instead, they’re engaged and excited. They’re learning to collaborate.”

Mary Joyce DeVirgilio’s 5th grade students design her dream house at St Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, IN.
Mary Joyce DeVirgilio’s 5th grade students design her dream house at St Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, IN.
Mary Joyce DeVirgilio’s 5th grade students design her dream house at St Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, IN.
Mary Joyce DeVirgilio’s 5th grade students design her dream house at St Vincent de Paul School in Fort Wayne, IN

DeVirgilio had immediately put into practice what she’d learned during a two-day workshop called “Everyone Can Become a Design Thinker” that three Notre Dame scholars from different disciplines led in February. Ann-Marie Conrado, assistant professor of industrial design, Wendy Angst, associate teaching professor of business management, and Jim Schmiedeler, assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering, led the workshop for about 35 local public and private high school and grade school teachers.

The workshop was one of four each semester that brings together University faculty with local educators through a program called Teachers as Scholars. The program, which is in its 17th year and has grown to nearly 200 participants last year, aims to share Notre Dame’s expertise and research in a way that inspires the teachers in their own classrooms.

“I hope they feel refreshed and excited about design thinking,” Angst said.

“I hope they’ll be empowered to find new ways to address problems they encounter, and find ways to make learning more exciting and hands-on for kids.”

If DeVirgilio’s classroom is any indicator, it’s working.

DeVirgilio said her students learned in social studies about Thomas Jefferson, who designed and built Monticello in Virginia as his personal dream house. In the cross-disciplinary spirit, she had her students study Monticello and architectural design before drawing their own dream houses. The students then used the design thinking process to combine the best ideas into a single dream house on the ocean for their teacher.

“We usually work on our own art projects, but this is a lot more fun,” said William, one of the fifth-grade students. Another student in his group lamented out loud: “The fountain, where would the water fountain go?”

The Teaching as Scholars Program (TAS) began at Harvard University in 1996 and grew to include about 30 universities across the country with early funding from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. As that funding ended, the program slowly petered out – except at Harvard, Princeton and Notre Dame.

Jane Doering, an early organizer at Notre Dame, put together a small endowment to keep it going along with contributions from the Office of Public Affairs, the Devers Program in Dante Studies, the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, the Kellogg Institute for International Studies, and others. This year’s topics range from sustainability and economic inequality to upcoming sessions on religious myths and race in the media.

Jay Caponigro, director of community engagement and administrator of the TAS program, welcomed the teachers to an opportunity to become students again. “It’s also a reminder to our professors of what it’s like to teach from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he joked. “They decided it would take three of them.”

The idea to do a seminar on design thinking began with efforts to promote the systematic process across different disciplines. Angst teaches design thinking in business management and recently hosted in her class Dennis Boyle, a ’78 graduate and co-founder of IDEO, the design firm that has evangelized its creative process. Conrado and Schmiedeler also teach design thinking in industrial design and mechanical engineering, respectively. Schmiedeler, a TAS veteran, thought teachers would welcome design thinking as a practical and hands-on curriculum.

The first class provided a crash course in design thinking. It’s basically a way of problem solving in clear steps that starts with a deep empathy for the user, invites a wide raft of ideas, then narrows them down into rapidly built solutions to test which works best.

“It seems obvious to start with the need,” said Conrado. “But my first job was to design a curling iron with a head designer who was bald.” Different creative exercises stress the idea of discovering what people want based on how they create ad-hoc solutions, such as using books to prop up a computer monitor.

The professors sent the teachers out at lunch to identify dining needs on the Notre Dame campus. The teachers used observation and interviews to come back with ideas for how to make improvements. Those ideas are written out on post-it notes so that they can be easily rearranged to find connections and patterns. The teachers then sketched out solutions such as helping people with dietary restrictions, or creating an Uber-style pay model that would cut out waiting in line.

Everyone Can Become a Design Thinker Session at Mendoza College of Business.
Everyone Can Become a Design Thinker Session at Mendoza College of Business.
Everyone Can Become a Design Thinker Session at Mendoza College of Business.
"Everyone Can Become a Design Thinker" Session at Mendoza College of Business.

Lisa Jarrett, who teaches government and history at Washington High School in South Bend, said she often attends TAS workshops. She said this session will help her find new ways of thinking, as well as ideas that get kids more involved in learning.

“Today in education, there are so few opportunities to meet with peers and discuss issues,” Jarrett said. “This has a revitalizing effect. It’s refreshing to be in a space where education is valued.”

In the second session two weeks later, the teachers zeroed in on the challenges they face in the classroom. They chose to focus on how to promote independence in their students. The post-it notes flew onto whiteboards around the room.

Different groups narrowed their challenge into workable goals. One group asked: How might we direct student socialization into a positive force for education? Another: How can we encourage an appropriate level of parental involvement? Ultimately, many of the groups wanted to find ways to motivate their students to succeed on their own.

The process again moved from brainstorming to pattern identification to potential solutions. One element of design thinking is changing the parameters to prompt new ideas – such as solutions that don’t cost money or ones that must employ technology. The professors shuffled between the groups to offer suggestions and encouragement.

The day culminated in presentations of rapid prototypes. One group suggested a digital money program to incentivize students, another a video series for parents on how to let students learn through failure, and a third a question game designed to promote serious debates. One of the more creative ideas was a printable badge with a code that parents could scan to find out what’s going on in each student’s school life (B+ on his last math test, quiz bowl event on Friday).

Wrapping up, Conrado, Angst and Schmiedeler praised the ideas and encouraged the teachers to bring them back to their schools. “I like how you took the big challenge of independence and broke it down into manageable parts,” Conrado said.

Aaron Akers, a math teacher at Grissom Middle School located in Mishawaka, said he’s always looking for outside-the-box ideas he can incorporate in his classes. He’s been to a few previous TAS workshops, and design thinking appealed to him because too many students just want the right answer.

“They need ways to think on their own because they don’t know what to do with new problems except to Google it,” Akers said.

“It’s not just about getting from point A to point B. It’s about problem solving. Yes, there may be one answer but there are many paths to get there.”

DeVirgilio said she will continue to attend TAS workshops and bring along fellow teachers. After an earlier seminar with a professor who wrote a book on symbolic meaning in paintings, she had her students draw self-portraits from colonial times, using what they’d learned about the American Revolution to add symbolic details. This year, she especially appreciated being able to get involved in the creative process rather than dictating what to do and evaluating it later.

“It’s freeing for me as a teacher,” DeVirgilio says, “because instead of telling them what to do all the time, I just walk around and make suggestions. It’s all self-motivated.”