SMITHFIELD, RI – Every year, Bryant’s entire campus community mobilizes in support of the IDEA (Innovation and Design Experience for All) program, an immersive design thinking experience for all first-year students. Faculty, staff, student and alumni mentors come together to create a Silicon Valley-like start-up environment that enables students to learn and practice design thinking, a process for creative problem solving used by many of the world’s most innovative and successful companies, including Apple, Amazon, GE, Airbnb, Microsoft, and Nike.
Anyone who has been on campus for the IDEA program, either as a participant or observer, knows the feeling of being swept up in the excitement around the learning, creativity, and collaboration taking place from early morning till late at night for nearly three days straight.
So, when the global pandemic made it necessary to pivot to create a virtual IDEA experience, leaders got to work applying the design thinking process—empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test—to reinvent the program after eight increasingly successful years on campus. There was never a question of if it could be done, only how.
If anyone could successfully make this transition, it was Psychology Professor and IDEA Director Allison Butler and a dedicated, nimble team of faculty—many of whom are design thinking experts, teachers, researchers, and consultants to major corporations—as well as staff and student leaders. (Full committee list here)
Virtual IDEA 2021 was a huge undertaking and an even bigger success. Simply put, Professor Butler and the IDEA leadership team, faculty, staff, and 800 first-year students met the challenge. Some might say they “hit it out of the park.” Working together since last July, the leadership team built a scheduling matrix of international Zoom meetings, conducted intensive training, and developed new digital tools and technology—all in time to launch a precision operation that rivaled the most complex military mission. It was all accomplished with the support of 120 mentors, 200 field research interview guests, 120 judges and 80 alumni mentors contributing from around the world.
“Elevating empathy” was the guiding theme as students tackled some of the most difficult challenges and disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Each cohort applied design thinking principles to answer the overarching question: “How might we elevate empathy, social connection, and community in a COVID world?"
The virtual format allowed IDEA to expand its reach globally, with students, keynote speakers, and even some parents tuning in from around the world. High-level keynote presentations featuring prominent global design thinking experts included: "Elevating Empathy" with Shola Kaye, a London-based speaker, author, and international performer, followed by a workshop where students will develop a 30-day empathy plan; "Think Different, The Disney Way" by Duncan Wardle, renowned innovation expert and former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney; and a Corporate Leadership Panel Discussion moderated by Bryant President Ross Gittell, Ph.D., titled "Elevating Empathy and Innovation during the Pandemic,” with Norman de Greve, Chief Marketing Officer, CVS Health; Joseph Collette, Employee Technology Experience Director, Citizens Bank; Amy Carosi, Organizational Development Officer at Amica; and Jocelyn Murta '05, '11 MST, Tax Partner at EY.
Some students early on were a little hesitant in this unfamiliar territory, but they soon became energized and eager to learn the design thinking process. They came to realize that this kind of learning is about more than getting the “right” answer or “earning an A,” it is about learning a new way of thinking and problem solving. Through the IDEA program, students develop curiosity, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, perseverance, and grit. It sets a foundation that prepares future leaders for success no matter what the future brings.
While some of the best and most transformative IDEA moments had previously been possible through in-person teamwork and relationship building, the new virtual tools successfully enabled the level of connecting and collaboration that is a hallmark of the program. Students quickly adapted to the more sophisticated tools for ideation, digital brainstorming, story boarding, and prototyping. These new technologies proved highly effective for developing, iterating, and presenting ideas. In fact, many of the innovations developed for the virtual program, will continue when the program resumes in person.
What people are saying about IDEA
We asked faculty, students, and alumni to share an insiders’ view into the IDEA experience and its impact.
“At first, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect...I know that I’m going to be able to use what I learned in my projects at college and when I graduate."
“At first, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But now, looking back, I think it was so helpful. I know that I’m going to be able to use what I learned in my projects at college and when I graduate.” - Lauren Barry ‘24
“I have participated in the IDEA program several times before and could not have imaged this could be done virtually. A big thanks to the leadership team of the IDEA program for the tremendous effort and time they put in planning this program and making it successful. In my view, technology played a critical role in its success.” – Suhong Li, Ph.D., Professor and Chair, Information Systems and Analytics, Faculty Mentor
"The design thinking process trains students to discover an answer that didn't exist before, and that's innovation."
“The biggest challenge with teaching design thinking is getting the students comfortable with not knowing the answer, and that they will likely fail before they succeed. The design thinking process trains students to discover an answer that didn't exist before, and that's innovation." – Michael Roberto, DBA, Trustee Professor of Management, IDEA Co-founder
“The highlight of IDEA is seeing the students getting really excited when they were working on their storyboards. You could feel their energy as they were putting their solutions together and making their ideas become real.” – Stephanie Mott, MSc, Lecturer, Science and Technology, Faculty Mentor
“Every one of us involved at Bryant, faculty, staff, administration, students, has a vocation, not a job."
“Every one of us involved at Bryant, faculty, staff, administration, students, has a vocation, not a job. Every single day we have the potential to influence someone's life. I am happy to say that I have not met a single person at Bryant who doesn't demonstrate that responsibility.” – Robert Massoud, MBA, Lecturer, Management, Faculty Mentor
"The endorsement of the IDEA program by our classroom visitors and from Duncan Wardle’s webinar certainly added to this belief."
"Empathy is generally part of transferable skills that are in high demand by employers (emotional intelligence). The first “aha” moment I saw was during and after the interviews at the end of the first day. That’s when the topic became real. And then the next “aha” moments were when they grouped and ranked their ideas." – Jacqueline Saslawski, JD, Director, International Business Program
“I witnessed an increase in commitment, determination, and confidence as we progressed the IDEA program. Moreover, the realization that design thinking is essential for business survival grew throughout the program. The endorsement of the IDEA program by our classroom visitors and from Duncan Wardle’s webinar certainly added to this belief.” – Dan McNally, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Science and Technology, Faculty Mentor
“IDEA allows our students to be exposed to skills that will take them through life, professional jobs, and personal situations. One of the goals is to make our Bryant community more inclusive and have better global citizens who can respect other points of view.” – Patricia Gomez, Sr. Lecturer Modern Languages, Faculty Mentor
"I’m very optimistic about what this new generation of Bulldogs can do.”
“The adaptability I saw in the students project was amazing, especially since this was the first year that IDEA has been virtual. This is all new and very impressive. From what I’ve seen tonight, I’m very optimistic about what this new generation of Bulldogs can do.” – Kate McDonald ’15, Founder and CEO of Broadreach Career Consulting, Alumni Mentor
“It was so exciting to be an alumni mentor for Bryant IDEA this year. Students are taking on incredibly important problems while learning lifelong design thinking skills. This program sparked my interest in innovation as a first-year student and I’m thankful to be able to help current students develop their own ideas!" – Lena Lambrou, ’16, MPAC ’16 CPA, Analysis & Reporting Analyst, Citizens Bank, Alumni Mentor
"Thank you, Bryant University and the IDEA Program leadership team for allowing me to be a part of this program.”
“This program allows Bryant University’s freshman class to work in teams on projects covering a range of "real world" situations, ranging from the arts to social services to the business sector, where they practice elements of the design thinking process and work in teams to come up with creative solutions to problems. Thank you, Bryant University and the IDEA Program leadership team for allowing me to be a part of this program.” – Nicholas Caracciolo '20, ’21 MBA