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Author's profile photo Don Ginocchio

Northwestern Students Apply Design Thinking to Sustainable Development Goal: Good Health and Well Being

On Saturday March 16th, I had the great privilege to serve as a judge during the Design Expo at Northwestern University. First-year students enrolled in the Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) course shared what they had designed for various clients including the Shirley Ryan Ability Lab. Many of the student projects supported the UN Sustainable Development Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being. The two projects I judged are described below.

Assistive Functional Communication Options – We at Esperanza support adults with autism and other developmental disabilities in a Community Day Services Program as well as Community Integrated Living Arrangement homes. They are all from low-income backgrounds, and many could use extra support to help them communicate independently as they all have very different levels of communication and abilities. Two clients in particular have very high comprehension, but they are mostly limited to gesturing when communicating their wants, needs, and thoughts as they are unable to produce words. Creating a more mobile device that can help them categorize communication categories and perhaps have an audio component that records audio stating what they wish to convey in a simple way could be amazing. This could also benefit many of our other clients with expressive language challenges.

Helping Stroke Patients Look Up! – I frequently walk patients after strokes with very poor postural control, sensation, proprioception, and strength. I find that they often look down as they are walking because they need to see their feet. However, when they look down to the ground, their trunk typically falls and it becomes more work for me to hold them up and it’s harder for them to advance their feet if their trunk is flexed. I am interested in some sort of device that helps patients look up more consistently-whether it be a mirror, a type of glasses, or a contraption worn on someone’s chest or shoulders that prevents looking down or reflects a picture of their foot positioning?

Design Thinking and Communication (DTC), is a required two-quarter course for all first-year students at Northwestern Engineering. DTC is a cross-school course jointly taught by faculty throughout the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences Cook Family Writing Program.

An innovative course that embeds communication instruction in the context of design, DTC immediately puts students to work on real design problems submitted by individuals, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and industry members. In DTC, all students design for real people and communicate to real audiences. DTC was introduced in 1997 as part of the Engineering First® curriculum. This curriculum created a new pedagogy for engineering education and has been nominated for a National Academy of Engineering award for educational excellence and featured in the Wall Street Journal. 

DTC student teams integrate communication skills and design thinking while they:

  • Study a problem from multiple perspectives
  • Learn how to frame the design challenge properly
  • Ideate, prototype, and iterate solutions
  • Communicate their ideas clearly in design reviews, reports, and presentations
  • Learn from the overall design process how to create value, prepare for their careers, and participate more fully in society

Dynamic and Interdisciplinary

The curriculum for this two-quarter course fulfills requirements in both engineering design and written communication and is team-taught by faculty from the McCormick School of Engineering and the Cook Family Writing Program in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences. This interdisciplinary approach epitomizes the strengths defined in Northwestern’s Strategic Plan and has been recognized nationally and internationally as a model in innovative education.

Projects and Topics

The DTC curriculum is continually refreshed by new projects and rotating faculty. DTC’s collaborations with the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and other local non-profit organizations, such as Lambs Farm and Kids in Danger, help students appreciate the social impact of engineering. Every quarter, new and relevant topics like sustainability, engineering ethics, and global awareness are introduced to students. Completion of the first quarter is a prerequisite for the second quarter course.

Authentic and Experiential

In DTC’s first quarter, students typically solve problems for people with special needs, such as rehabilitation or special educational recreation. In the second quarter, projects address a variety of problems in healthcare, industry, and education.

A unique feature of DTC, as compared to introductory design courses at other universities, is that our projects are submitted by real clients and generally involve interaction with real users. Students learn skills that span designing a product for a person and telling a story to an audience. They learn that good communication leads to better design.

Professional Skills & Experience

Working in teams, students learn that both design and communication are iterative, context-centered, problem-solving processes. All communication deliverables are tied to the project work.

Students advance their experience with professional communication genres, technologies, and conventions, including:


DTC’s team-based approach, broad scope, and public events bring together diverse members of the Northwestern community and raise awareness of the importance of design thinking. DTC courses are held in studio classrooms in the prominent Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, centrally located on Northwestern’s Evanston campus. Its resources are shared by the Farley Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the Segal Design Institute, and the McCormick School of Engineering. Thus from the beginning of their academic career, DTC students have the opportunity to interact with upperclass and graduate students in Ford’s classrooms, hallways, and the state-of-the-art Prototyping and Fabrication Lab.

This was another of many experiences with the DTC class and once again I was thoroughly impressed with the quality design and professional presentations by Northwestern students. SAP continues to engage with Northwestern as we expand our innovation ecosystem partnerships in the Midwest. SAP is a sponsor of the upcoming VentureCat competition which culminates on May 22nd.

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      Author's profile photo Anne Johnson
      Anne Johnson

      I am always delighted to hear about these kinds of events, and collaborations! Combining bright minds with real challenges through fruitful design methodology is the way forward. It also shows the rest of the world that the methods and mindsets work as intended, and that the newer generations have them already!

      Keep up the commitment and collaboration with Northwestern, it's great 🙂