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New course at UNC, taught by Glenn Walters, combines design thinking and experiential making

June 13, 2018

This article is adapted from its original version, published by Innovate Carolina on June 8.

Students may define their success in an academic course in any number of ways – e.g., getting good grades, learning new skills or expanding their knowledge and awareness – but few acknowledge that experiencing failure helps makes a course successful. Now, a new design and making course at UNC-Chapel Hill is teaching students that moving forward requires that they first endure a few steps backward.

Taught initially in spring 2018, the course “Introduction to Design and Making” is exposing UNC students to state-of-the-art technology, while also proving that hard work and perseverance through failure can be rewarding.

Dr. Glenn Walters

Dr. Glenn Walters

Offered through the Department of Applied Physical Sciences as APPL 110, the course is taught by Glenn Walters, PhD, research associate in the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Department of Environmental Sciences and Engineering (ESE) and director of the ESE Design Center in the Gillings School. The course, which sparks innovation through creative prototyping, is designed to incubate an entrepreneurial mindset in students, while providing them with tools to make objects they can share with friends or even sell on the market.

Innovate Carolina provided materials and additional resources, serving as a catalyst to jumpstart the course. As the Universitywide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E), Innovate Carolina and its partners in the in the I&E campus network provide students, faculty and staff with the tools and resources they need to turn their ideas into innovations.

“The vision for the class is to bring together concepts of design thinking and experiential making,” Walters said. “The course is a deep dive into what’s involved in the design process, giving students a broad familiarity with digital fabrication technologies and giving them in-depth experience using those technologies to develop physical prototypes.”

However, the course is not for the faint of heart. Accepting and learning from failure can be the most challenging concept for students to grasp. In this class, failure is embraced and even celebrated.

“The goal is to be successful with assignments, but you’ll have to fail – maybe multiple times – to get there,” said Walters.

The class explores design through active making, discussion, presentation and self-evaluation. It challenges students to learn and appreciate that repetition is required to develop and refine prototypes. Class assignments include group work around processing pre-made objects and double-sided engraving as well as individual assignments such as creating designs with a 3D printer.

“It’s not exactly like brainstorming a business plan,” Walters said. “Students have to learn that the key to all design prototyping is how to be patient and persevere. “Students quickly realize there’s no choice but to plan their time accordingly to keep working on their prototype until it’s just right.”

Students also discovered a bonus benefit throughout the semester – realizing they can apply the skills they learn to other classes and in other areas of life.

“One student shared that he signed up for the course because he wanted to just do what’s required to get the grade,” said Walters. “But by the end of the course, that same student had flipped his outlook, learning a better way to work with groups and translate that skill to other classes as well.”

In teaching the course, Walters pulls from his own experiences and approach to the world.

“People can be inhibited in their ability to understand design and making,” he said. “The biggest obstacle can be intimidation by technology. In order to foster the learning process, I spend time helping students work through their assignments and dealing with the fact they won’t get it right the first time. It’s about getting them to accept that principle and to keep trying until it’s right.”

The course is the brainchild of Walters, Rich Goldberg, PhD, research associate professor in UNC’s Department of Biomedical Engineering, and Rich Superfine, PhD, Taylor-Williams Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy at UNC and professor in the Department of Applied Physical Sciences.

Those interested in design and making can register for the course, no matter their major. The inaugural class included a broad cross section, including first-years and graduate students and those with a variety of majors, including art, biomedical engineering, environmental science, communications, and media and journalism.

The class brought together students who had no experience in entrepreneurship with others in the early stages of building businesses. Some students already had established businesses. Much like a startup environment, the course teaches students how to collaborate and use their own unique skills to work toward a common objective.

“Students have no choice but to get the work done,” said Walters. “Getting the taste for failure – that’s how you determine if you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re still excited about it, you will come out of the class jazzed up and fired up.”

Fall 2018 registration for the class is still open. The course will be held on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the newly remodeled active learning space in Phillips Hall, which is ideal for group hands-on activities and learning.

“Our goal is to create a larger community of informed makers that offer greater benefits to the entrepreneurship community as well,” said Walters.

Students from any major are welcome and encouraged to register. There are no course prerequisites, but a required orientation training will take place prior to the first class.


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Contact the Gillings School of Global Public Health communications team at sphcomm@listserv.unc.edu.