Reaching Out To The Next Generation Of Problem Solvers

Post Written By Center for Innovation Designer Rose Anderson

3...2...1 … Pencils - or iPads - up! The auditorium erupted in shouts as Byron Middle School sixth graders finished brainstorming as many uses as they could for a paper clip. By generating many possible solutions, they were experiencing the first part of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation’s Think Big, Start Small, Move Fast™ approach. Their teacher, Ben Pollack, invited me to kick-off the Byron science classes’ myth-busting project with a presentation about how we approach problem-solving at the Center for Innovation (CFI).

Can we pull off the table cloth without the plates falling off?

Can we pull off the tablecloth without the plates falling off?

The kids took a virtual tour of CFI and we talked about what it is like to work in a place where the walls have been removed - literally and figuratively. I described how I discovered design in the spaces between art and science and recalled being amazed to find a field that combined what I enjoyed best about both. I introduced them to the various fields of design through the International Design Excellence Awards jury process and the qualities of great design. Together, we speculated on the different skills and expertise of designers, engineers, marketers, and end-users who collaborate to create products and services we experience every day.

At the end, the kids were ready with their rapid-fire Q&A: What do you do when you get stuck on a problem? How do you use the scientific method? What do you do when people don't like your idea? And finally: What was a recent problem you had to solve? The honest answer to that one: create an engaging experience for 75 sixth-graders that introduces them to the field of design and shows how science and art come together at the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation to solve real-world problems in health care.

To approach this challenge, I reached for the same process that I use to help solve problems for patients and care teams. As the first step in a human-centered design process, I considered the personas of my end-users. What perspectives might they be coming from? What might they perceive as valuable or interesting? What might be relatable from their experiences that could translate into the information that I wanted to convey?

I considered the context and constraints. What materials will I have to work with? What kind of environment will we be in?  How much time? What length of attention span?

Does an ingredient in diet soda make the can float? Students used the scientific method to solve these myths and potentially bust them!

Does an ingredient in diet soda make the can float? Students used the scientific method to solve these myths and potentially bust them!

To develop the presentation, I challenged myself to push beyond my first ideas and generate a variety of topics and activities. From that brainstorm, I threw out the worst ideas, and converged on an approach based on my understanding of the participants’ personas and contextual constraints. I used a set of design principles to down select the ideas. Change it up every 15 minutes to hold their attention. Alternate the activities between listening and participating. Be visual. Be flexible and ready to shorten or lengthen a section based on the energy in the room. Be ready to improvise.

To refine the presentation plan, I imagined a narrative of the session, thinking through how it might play out. I considered weak areas and developed contingencies for potential failure points (e.g. the videos not working). In an ideal human-centered design process, I have would tested and refined the plan with input from a small group of actual sixth graders, but in this case a quick review with Ben, their teacher and expert in this kind of challenge, was my verification step before launching this first prototype with a group of seventy-five.

Reflecting on how I prepared for this visit to Byron Middle School reminded me how much I draw upon the human-centered design process for every day problem-solving. Even outside the context of service and product design, having empathy for others’ perspectives, using constraints as a generative lever, and seeking out multiple solutions are useful techniques for day-to-day challenges.