Bryant University’s IDEA (Innovation and Design Experience for All) program is more than just an opportunity to learn important skills and gain important experience, IDEA Director and Professor of Psychology Allison Butler, Ph.D., told the members of Bryant’s Class of 2025 as they prepared to take part in the three-day design thinking bootcamp. The program, now in its tenth year, she noted, has always been about changing the world.
“In this year's program, we are celebrating 10 years of big ideas. For 2022, we're pushing you to develop truly big ideas, the wild ideas, the transformative ideas,” stated Butler in her opening address to the program’s participants. “We want you to think blue sky and experience the exhilaration and the empowerment that comes from designing a solution that is so big, so transformative, and so disruptive that it changes the human experience on a grand scale.”
Through IDEA 2022, more than 620 members of Bryant’s first year class began to take their first steps toward making those grand dreams a reality and joined the nearly 8,000 Bryant students who have already completed the IDEA program over the course of its history. By working together, and with the support of the entire University, they honed the skills of world-class innovators—skills that will prepare them to conceive, and achieve, more than they ever thought possible.
A record of success
A key piece of Bryant’s nationally recognized First Year Gateway, the IDEA program replicates the Silicon Valley start-up atmosphere for the University’s entire first-year class by immersing them in design thinking—a systematic process for creative problem-solving used by many of the largest and most successful companies in the world, including Amazon, Google, Apple, and Tesla.
IDEA emphasizes effective group work, flexibility, empathy, and creative thinking, all of which are highly prized by businesses around the globe. IDEA Student Mentor Alexandria Iacoviello ’22, an International Business major concentrating in Entrepreneurship and Spanish, has seen the benefits of the program first-hand. Her design thinking experience was invaluable, she says, when she interviewed for an internship at IBM.
“We keep doing IDEA because it works. So many of the students I’ve taught come back after graduation and tell me how important IDEA was to them, how much they learned from it, and how important those lessons were for success in the real world.”
Her interviewers, she notes, were immediately intrigued when she told them about IDEA and the direct experience she had with creative problem solving. It helped her stand out in a crowded field and she was chosen for the internship, which led to a job offer. “I tell the IDEA students I’ve mentored that they’re learning skills that even professionals in the business world don’t know–but want to learn,” says Iacoviello, who will be joining IBM after graduation.
Senior Lecturer of History and Social Sciences David Ciliberto, Ph.D., has served as a Faculty Mentor for all ten years of the IDEA program and is also a member of the IDEA leadership team. “We keep doing IDEA because it works,” he states. “So many of the students I’ve taught come back after graduation and tell me how important IDEA was to them, how much they learned from it, and how important those lessons were for success in the real world.”
Big problems, big solutions
Over the course of the program, the first-year students worked in teams to use design thinking to come up with solutions for some of the world’s biggest problems. Their challenges ranged from increasing mental health support to improving corporate sustainability to reimaging the future of work.
“I think it’s a good thing to practice solving the biggest problems, because then when you get to the normal-size problems it seems a little easier.”
"IDEA was different than anything I've ever had to do for a class,” says Applied Mathematics and Economics double major Aileen Charrion ’25, who appreciated the program’s human-centered approach and focus on hands-on learning. Through IDEA, Charrion states, you get to put what you’re learning to work on the largest scale possible.
That approach is great preparation for first-year students like herself, she says, who are just starting their time in college “I think it’s a good thing to practice solving the biggest problems, because then when you get to the normal-size problems it seems a little easier.”
Inspiration from the very best
The program’s keynote speaker, Duncan Wardle, a renowned innovation expert and former Head of Innovation and Creativity at Disney, drew upon his extensive experience to show the students how to embrace creativity and become game changers and impact thinkers. The most important in-demand skillset, he told the IDEA students, is being able to adapt to unusual circumstance and use ingenuity, teamwork, and empathy to imagine something better.
“So many people who volunteer for the IDEA program have had an experience where somebody in the Bryant community made a positive impact on them and they want to make that same difference for somebody else."
“In a post-pandemic world, iteration will no longer be enough,” he noted. “The number of companies that are going to go out of business is staggering, quite frankly. Because we're not going back to business as usual, we're going back to business as unusual.”
His creativity exercises and advice, illustrated by stories from his time working with Disney, Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, and others, helped bring design thinking to life for the IDEA students. “His presentation was phenomenal, he brought so much energy and he had so many great examples,” says first year student John Boccuzzi III. “It was all about expansive thinking and how far you can take big ideas, but he also made big ideas feel achievable.”
A united community
The IDEA program unites the entire Bryant community of faculty, staff, alumni, and students—who serve as the program’s mentors, resources, and judges—in preparing the University’s first-year students to excel. For Iacoviello, it was a chance to give back. “So many people who volunteer for the IDEA program have had an experience where somebody in the Bryant community made a positive impact on them and they want to make that same difference for somebody else,” she says.
“It's about being creative, it’s about putting things out there and testing them, and it's about taking risks. When you start doing all of that, you realize it can really add to any project you're working on.”
“It's all about the synergistic environment,” adds Ciliberto. “Everybody here at Bryant is supporting each other and we all build on each other because when you build on each other it can take you anywhere.”
That focus on teamwork, says Gabriel Mullings ’25, is one of the best parts of the program. “We were really challenged to work as a team,” he says. “We had so much to do that we had to rely on each other.” His group was tasked with furthering discussions on racial equity and developed an impressive multimedia platform designed to help college students have important discussions regarding sensitive issues. “I had an idea I believed in and then it became our entire team’s idea and everyone in our group contributed to it and made it bigger and better,” he notes.
The spirit of comradery extended beyond the Bryant campus as IDEA's program sponsors helped ensure that the students had the tools they needed for success. AAA Northeast sponsored a journey mapping exercise that assisted IDEA participants in better understanding how their projects could aid others and Senior Vice President of Marketing Lisa Melton shared with them how human-centered design helps the company foster a great member experience. Multinational professional services network EY sponsored team building workshops that brought the IDEA cohorts together as high functioning units and helped the students bond with one another. Representatives from both organizations also served as judges and mentors.
IDEA also demonstrated its commitment to the larger community by collecting 3,355 pounds of food for the Rhode Island Community Foodbank.
For Bryant’s students, their time in IDEA can be transformative. “Design thinking teaches you how to open your mind and approach things in a more innovative, human-centric way,” says Iacoviello. “It's about being creative, it’s about putting things out there and testing them, and it's about taking risks. When you start doing all of that you realize it can really add to any project you're working on.”
Mullings, a Finance student and aspiring entrepreneur, believes his three days with IDEA helped him develop a competitive edge. “I really enjoyed learning about design thinking and I thought it was really eye-opening,” he says. “I'm a business major and I like to have a business mindset, so anytime I can learn something new that can give me an advantage it’s valuable.”
“One of the most important things we learned is that creativity is like a muscle. After working that muscle for the last three days, it reminded me that, okay, I need to keep doing this because it’s so important.”
The skills you acquire through IDEA, says Charrion, are important no matter your field. “In every major and in every job, you have to know how to problem solve,” she points out. “And you need to be able to work through complicated things that might seem difficult.”
Innovation without end
At the conclusion of the program, Butler lauded the students’ efforts. “It is truly incredible what you have accomplished in just three days,” she told them, noting they had come up with more than 27,200 ideas to solve issues that bedeviled some of the planet’s greatest thinkers. “You came together as a class, you supported each other, and you challenged each other.”
But their work was not yet over, she reminded them. For their IDEA experience to truly be a success, they had to keep using design thinking to make a difference. “As you start your spring semester, let's continue to embrace the principles of design thinking to push ourselves to new heights of creativity and to identify innovative ways to improve the experiences and lives of others,” she urged. “Now that you are equipped with these new skills and tools, we cannot wait to see what your next big idea will be.”
Boccuzzi says he’s already started using the lessons he learned. “Since IDEA, I sometimes catch myself shooting down ideas that might seem impractical and saying ‘no.’ Because of the IDEA program, I’m now saying, 'let's start with 'yes and' and see where that takes us,'” he says. “One of the most important things we learned is that creativity is like a muscle. After working that muscle for those three days, it reminded me that, okay, I need to keep doing this because it’s so important.”