First class of Design Thinking Academy students complete program

Pictured are the 19 students from 15 different majors who completed the inaugural semester of the Design Thinking Academy
Nineteen students from 15 different majors became the first group of fellows to complete Grand Valleys Design Thinking Academy during a special ceremony December 8.
Image Credit: courtesy of John Berry

Nineteen students from 15 different majors recently became the first group of fellows to complete the inaugural semester of Grand Valley’s new Design Thinking Academy — a program established to help students become innovative thinkers and problem solvers who are able to make lasting impacts in the world.

During a ceremony on December 8, the academy fellows were awarded Design Thinking Academy certificates of completion. John Berry, director of the academy and Grand Valley’s Design Thinking Initiative, said the university’s program is one-of-a-kind.

“To my knowledge, there is no other Design Thinking Academy focused on undergraduates as an extra-curriculum program anywhere else in the country, so we are unique,” said John Berry. “All employers I’ve talked with tell me they’re looking for graduates who have creative experiences beyond their specific majors and that design thinking provides that mind set and soft skill development important for innovation and future growth.”

Throughout the fall semester, academy fellows from different majors worked in small teams to solve a need within the university, or a community-based issue from a list of more than 16 organizations wanting to work with the Design Thinking Academy team.

For example, one team of students paired with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC) to tackle the issue of a lack of affordable housing in Ottawa County. The group additionally worked with Gentex and United Way to better understand the housing market of that region.

“After interviewing dozens of factory workers and housing professionals in the area, we have made a survey to send out to hourly-wage factory workers in Ottawa County,” said Emilio Fisher, a sophomore majoring in political science and economics. “We have determined that there is a strong need for affordable housing closer to the corporations where these people work, and are very excited to continue to tackle this issue after we receive the survey results next semester.”

Ryan Kilpatrick, senior community assistance specialist at MEDC, said even representatives from MEDC who worked with academy fellows learned more about the design thinking process.

“Very often, we approach a problem with the expectation that we fully understand the problem and dive right into crafting solutions,” Kilpatrick said. “What I appreciate about the design thinking process is the effort taken to gather information, do the work of empathy, and take a deeper dive into first understanding the nature of a problem.”

Kilpatrick added that the level of professionalism shown by Grand Valley students has been impressive.

“They are demonstrating an eagerness to be engaged and to help drive the process,” he said.

Other academy projects included: developing a design thinking program for seniors at Byron Center High School; helping teams collaborate across distances at Steelcase; and creating cross-curricular learning opportunities in the Forest Hills public school system.

The projects the four teams of students have been working on since August will be stretched through the winter semester.

Berry said following the upcoming winter 2018 semester, the format of the Design Thinking Academy will be modified to extend through an entire academic year, rather than lasting for single semesters.

Throughout the semester, academy fellows additionally participated in a Design Thinking Deep Dive Session, which introduced them to the process, and sessions facilitated by professionals on the topics of improvisation, empathy, non-verbal body language, presenting and prototyping. Students also visited local furniture manufacturer Steelcase to learn how a company can implement design thinking and hear why employers seek new employees familiar with the process.

“I fully believe that I will be able to take what I have learned in the Design Thinking Academy and apply it to my future career as well as my relationships,” said Steven Reame, a junior majoring in marketing and finance. “There are so many valuable lessons to be learned from the process that can be applied to everyday life."

This semester's class of fellows included: Patrick Cox, Erika Bowring, Aqua Bajric, Kelly Hancox, Linnea Martinez, Joshua Martin, Andrew Dzierwa, Patrick Lynch, Levi Stephenson, Nikhil Watsa, Stephen Cooper, Steven Reame, Brandon Thompson, Max Merget, Emilio Fisher, Jacob Kreinbring, Alexa Evans, Andrew Hall and Antony Salazar.

Students interested in applying for the academy can do so by visiting The deadline for applications for the fall 2018 semester is March 1 and the Design Thinking Academy is open to all Grand Valley undergraduate students, regardless of major.