Back to School: Starting an Academic Partnership

How a tiny team of Facebook researchers and designers teamed up with the University of Washington to pilot a partnership program.

Jen Chiu
Jen Chiu
Aug 6, 2019 · 7 min read

100% co-authored by Geunbae Lee and Jen Chiu.

In six months, a team of only six Facebook researchers and designers — all with full-time gigs — cultivated a unique academic partnership program that we’re now looking to replicate with other universities. During this time, we generated an academic partnerships pilot roadmap, recruited executive sponsors and university recruiting, and successfully piloted three different programs.

We’re pretty proud of what we’ve accomplished, but we’re not sharing our story (just) to brag. Whether you’re interested in starting a similar program in your own organization, or you’re a student or teacher interested in connecting with real-world designers and researchers, we think our experience can help you start exploring the possibilities.

What motivated us to take this on?

Facebook’s bottom-up culture encourages us to seek out and tackle problem areas and opportunities outside of our day-to-day jobs. Beyond that, the motivations of our core team varied. Some of us wanted to build our recruiting pipeline, while others were driven by a desire to give back. All of us love the energy we get from interacting with students. We chose to start our pilot with the University of Washington’s Human Centered Design and Engineering (HCDE) program, in part because of our strong alumni base with this program.

We learned a lot in putting this collaboration together. True to Facebook’s culture, we experimented with three different programs, noting what worked and what didn’t. Here’s how they went, what we learned, and some tips for starting an academic partnership in your own organization.

1. “Design in the Wild” Competition

We asked students to submit a project tying into the theme of IxDA’s Interaction 2019 Conference. We invited finalist teams to our Facebook Seattle office to pitch their projects in person to a judging panel.

  • Finalist teams got some high-quality interaction with Facebook researchers and designers when presenting their work.
  • Our researchers and designers were energized and inspired by engaging with students and being part of our judging panel.

  • We underestimated the level of effort required. The terms of our competition had to be vetted by our Legal/Policy team, which required more time than we had originally anticipated.
  • The non-finalist students who submitted a project didn’t get a chance to interact with us, limiting the impact of the contest. As part of our retrospective, we asked ourselves: Is there a way we can reach more students?
Our student finalist teams w/ our our FB judging panel and UW Faculty

2. Design Jam

What could be more fun and immersive than about 60 students coming together to tackle challenging design problems? In our Design Jam, students spent a day working in small teams of 4–5 students, plus an FB team lead, to explore firsthand what it’s like to work at Facebook (and in tech generally).

We asked each team to design a solution pertaining to self-care during a career transition. Students generated and validated their problem statement, came up with design deliverables, and presented their ideas to a judging panel.

Although our core team knew that pulling off a Design Jam would be more time-consuming than the other events on our roadmap, we wanted to let more students and colleagues participate than our design competition had allowed.

“It was energizing to see the students showcase their creativity and collaboration. The Design Jam was a unique way for us to support future design talent.” — Robert Racadio, Facebook researcher and team lead of the winning team.

  • One said, “I loved the opportunity to work alongside Facebook researchers, designers, and content strategists in a non-formulaic way that enabled me to get out of my academic bubble.”
  • “So fun mentoring and engaging with students,” one employee said. “Their energy is infectious.”
  • — we reached about 60 students vs. only the 7 student finalists in the design competition.

  • Since the topic was well-being during career transitions, we assumed that, as students about to enter the job market, they’d pick a design solution with themselves in mind. Instead, students cultivated a range of use cases, including solutions for an older population approaching retirement.
  • About 25 Facebook employees helped make the day a raging success. Prep activities included creating speaker notes, recruiting team leads, creating the detailed structure/agenda for the day, coming up with scoring criteria, screening applicants, and more.
Winning team with their FB mentor, Robert Racadio

3. Capstone project

We wanted to explore our Facebook + Academic partnership even further by engaging with students beyond a one-day event. So we piloted Facebook Design and Research’s first Capstone project — a chance for students to partner with a Facebook research or design mentor to apply what they’ve learned in school to a real world project. A team of three UW HCDE students took on a project focusing on social good.

  • The students were proactive about setting appropriate goals for each milestone and communicating their progress.
  • The students worked collaboratively and generated high-quality deliverables.
  • The students continuously made refinements and improvements based on feedback from their mentor.

  • Trying to understand the perspectives, motivations, and thought processes of students are key to providing the most direct and actionable feedback.

Mentee Takeaway

“Geunbae - UW HCDE students Khang, Lynda, and Jonathan

Key Lessons from Piloting our Academic Partnership

Getting an academic partnership off the ground might not require as much time or effort as you think. It took our nimble core team just six months to successfully pilot three programs, one of which required us to corral over 25 of our colleagues to participate. You can start generating progress just by bringing together a few colleagues who share your passion and a willingness to “start somewhere.”

Facebook product designers, researchers, and content strategists get as much out of these programs and events as the students. “Students have this energy and point of view that accelerates our own creativity and innovation!” says one researcher. “I also love being able to collaborate and build connections with my fellow colleagues outside of our day-to-day work remit.”

The frameworks and toolkits we’ve built for these programs and events can easily be ported to other universities, programs, and events. Our core team is currently in roadmap planning mode, but we anticipate building off the momentum from our last Design Jam by applying its framework to other universities and organizations, with a focus on Diversity & Inclusion.

Tips for getting started

Interested in kickstarting something like this at your company or organization? Here are five keys to getting started on the right foot:

  1. Is your primary goal recruiting, giving employees a chance to give back, or both? Establishing your goals will help you create a roadmap and choose the right partners.
  2. Our university recruiters were great partners in a host of ways, including reviewing applications for our Design Jam and strategizing with us on making the most of our events.
  3. Target your outreach to colleagues who you think will be engaged and committed, and who will offer a diverse range of perspectives.
  4. Plan this work the way you would with your product team.
  5. Sponsorship is important for funding and sends a message to the core team that the work they’re doing matters and is being recognized. Executive sponsors can be powerful amplifiers, which is especially beneficial during early planning stages.

If you’ve taken part in such a partnership (on either the academic or corporate side) we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. And if you’re a student interested in programs like these, please help us spread the word by sharing this article with your faculty and staff.

“Thank you to Carolyn Wei, David Kille and David Hayward for helpful comments on previous drafts of this post.”


Geunbae Lee, Product Designer at Facebook, and Jen Chiu, Research Program Manager at Facebook.

Sarah Lawrence

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

Jen Chiu

Written by

Jen Chiu

Member of the human tribe; Diversity & Inclusion at Facebook

Facebook Research

Learnings from the people who study human behavior for Facebook

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