Innovation in Entrepreneurship Pedagogy Award Winner, Abby Fifer Mandell from the University of Southern California, shares her story of her award-winning course “Social Innovation Design Lab”.
BAEP 471: Social Innovation Design Lab is an undergraduate course that guides multidisciplinary teams of students in developing sustainable solutions to challenges faced by under-resourced communities in California. Students learn and apply human-centered design (i.e. “design thinking”), a systematic approach to problem solving that starts with consumer empathy and iterates toward more effective solutions. Students spend 100+ hours in the field learning about the needs of a specific community, identifying challenges faced by community members, defining a specific problem and opportunities (“assets”) that can be leveraged in pursuit of a solution, developing prototypes that respond to that challenge, testing the prototypes, and ultimately producing a market-ready for-profit product, system, or service. BAEP 471 was the first design course offered to non-design students at USC and is currently the only business course at USC that teaches human- centered design as a foundation for entrepreneurship.
The course, which enjoys a strong word-of-mouth following, requires application and draws upper-division students from schools across the university. In an average semester, the majority of students come from outside of the business school; for most, this is the first entrepreneurship course they will take. The opportunity to work in cross-disciplinary teams is novel for most students and a highlight of their experience in the course, as much of their time in college is otherwise spent with students of the same major. For business majors, the course shows a side of business they don’t see in other courses by providing examples of for-profit innovations with social missions.
The 15-week course originates during spring semester. In advance of the course, the instructor meets with an NGO partner to define a broad problem (the “design challenge”), toward which the student teams will focus their efforts. Past areas of focus have included education for farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, the management of Type 2 Diabetes in an immigrant community in Pacoima, California, and challenges faced by older adults. The NGO also serves to introduce students to clients of the NGO (“customers”) and to provide feedback on ideas throughout the semester. Over the course of fifteen weeks, students spend 100+ hours in the field engaging with customers. In and out of the classroom, students complete assignments that illuminate user empathy, need finding, framing the problem, identifying opportunities, ideation and iteration. Methods include readings, workshops with experts, lecture, discussion, individual journal assignments and group exercises compiled in Design Toolkit for Social Innovation, a 96-page compendium of assignments and activities for the classroom authored by the instructor, now in its eighth edition. Ultimately, each cross-disciplinary team of three students lands on a for-profit product, system or service that responds to a specific community need and can also can be utilized by customers facing similar challenges across the country and around the world. The final prototype must be radically affordable and scalable to at least one million users.
The success of BAEP 471 inspired BAEP 571: Social Innovation Design, now a required course for first-year students in USC’s Master of Science in Social Entrepreneurship degree program. In response to an increasing number of requests from professors outside of USC who are interested in incorporating human- centered design methodology in their entrepreneurship courses, the instructor collaborated with colleagues at the Art Center College of Design to publish an open-source toolkit that offers pedagogical design for social impact.