Careers, Love Potions, and Grilled Meat: Adventures in Structures and Functions, a Dispatch from Nairobi
By Bill Heinrich, Director of Assessment
The dust, diesel fumes, and honking motorbikes in Nairobi overwhelmed all the senses. The open-market hawkers were making their livings from fresh fruits, vegetables, and ugali (a corn-meal staple). I never expected my career in assessment to take me to Nairobi, but there I was, working for the Hub as part of a group learning to assess design thinking on the Innovation Scholars Program (ISP) project. Not ironically, our group had just met with a people on another food-related career path. World Food Prize winner, Jan Low, and several of her colleagues at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) spent an hour discussing potatoes, sweet potatoes, pests, and farmer-training. The range of people and the ways they work to advance their interests in food and food systems provided some valuable perspective on how we approach problems in field work and at MSU. I wondered how each of these food professionals arrived at that location in their careers. How did they learn what they know? How do they think about problem solving? What does innovation mean?
Innovation in food systems formed the central interest of the researchers and university leaders in the ISP from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR). The 17 innovation scholars, with whom we were traveling, are participants in a 15-month capacity building partnership sponsored by US Agency for International Development (USAID), MSU, and LUANAR. We aimed to help these food scientists conduct more community engaged scholarship by using design thinking as an approach to problem solving.
In my experience in higher education, complex problems reach all parts of the system, so when one group in that system tries to “own” the solution, the results are typically too narrow to affect the whole organization. Approaching problems from a shared point of view, however, has great potential to include the views of more stakeholders and create a shared understanding of how a solution might work. To help the ISP faculty achieve their goals in problem solving, we’ve been using design thinking to guide our partnership. By using design thinking, we’re aiming to support process innovations in both faculty research and institutional leadership. To meet this aim, we’ve embedded principles of design thinking into our planning, implementation, assessment practices on this project. Both the MSU team and the LUANAR team practice using design thinking as both learners and teachers. Switching between these roles requires essential cognitive flexibility, a key part of perspective-taking.
In interviews conducted during this excursion to Nairobi, the ISP Scholars told me some things that indicate increasing competence with design thinking. Beyond using design thinking intensively over 8 months on their research and leadership projects, the 17 scholars are using design thinking as a key approach to issues in curriculum and instruction, student support, human resources, community organizations, and even in family life. We heard several stories from each ISP participant describing how they have individually and uniquely embodied a human-centered problem solving approach. Their shared understanding of a design thinking approach has big potential for how this team approaches the next phase of their careers.
As we consider these lessons back at MSU, and at the Hub in particular, we can begin to appreciate similar forms of complexity in areas like student success and campus leadership. From the ISP Scholars, we are beginning to understand an essential pattern of how design thinking takes hold as a mindset. At the Hub, we can better use design thinking to guide our project partners toward innovative approaches to their own challenges. We are asking better questions about how and when we leverage these mindsets in our project facilitation. We cannot always plan for how design thinking will inform us, but we can anticipate that design thinking will lead us forward in a positive way.
Next, we can begin to reflect on how each of our individual careers are informed by our decisions. In turn we can consider how the experiences in our careers inform our ability to support faculty and campus leaders in making important policy changes to MSU curriculum and student experiences.
At the end of the trip, my eyes closed against the sun and grit of the Nairobi streets. I had a moment to reflect on my own career, now taking me on repeated trips around east Africa. Faculty development never registered as a career option or option back then. Yet on the last morning in Nairobi after we made some field notes, my colleagues and I had an extra few minutes before we departed. We took a walk around the neighborhood and discovered a particular innovator and entrepreneur, Dr. Suleiman, whose love potions, perhaps, might help us all figure out where a career might lead.