A scientist applies the scientific method… to people

If you could only take one more airplane flight, where would you go and why? What if scenic viewfinders showed us the landscapes of the future? Imagine if there was a last day to visit our national treasures.

What do these scenarios have in common? These were the ideas that d.school students launched into the world to communicate the urgency of climate change after spending a weekend at the Golden Gate Bridge talking to people and immersing themselves in the application of human-centered design as part of a 3 week course.

What is a view? This is the question our students explored with visitors to the Golden Gate Bridge as a way to understand how people think about the world around them.

Many years ago when I first heard about the d.school from my husband, Matt, it seemed a little bit like one of those fad diets. You know, the kind where you can only eat three types of food in a certain order and you only do it because it makes you feel connected to everyone else. However, my husband is fiercely independent, brilliant, and a voracious eater so the allure of sticky note- and dry-erase-wielding folks in the building next door had to be deeper. As an assistant professor, immersed in the quest for tenure, funding, and basic competency in the classroom, I progressed incrementally towards what is now a stubborn epiphany: embracing design abilities can dramatically improve the way I do my work.

As scientists, most of us entered our field out of a desire to make the world a better place. We become adept at identifying knowledge gaps and designing experiments to address them. We grow to iterate, learning from and adjusting experiments until we create new and (ideally) useful knowledge. Embedded in the ethnography of human-centered design is the same approach to problem solving, except people are the scientific literature that must be queried. The research products are things, services, or systems that are useful to people.

Although a regular practitioner of the scientific method, I was stunned to realize that outside of the lab I was skipping the first part, the foundation of knowledge building: identifying the problem. Now I see it all around me. On committees, we often start to solve problems before we have identified them. We look at curriculum from our ivory tower, with little attention to student needs. We are so often asked for our opinions, we forget to listen to those of others. We think facts will change minds, without understanding the scaffolding that makes up an individual. To extend the value of our work beyond our laboratories, we need ways to learn from and design for humans. This was my slow and stubborn epiphany.

How do we do this? Our Earth 10 class is an evolving experiment in how we blend facts with understanding of what people value. Conversations with visitors at the Golden Gate Bridge provided a treasure trove of insights into how and why people value places. Awareness about the carbon footprint of airline travel was motivated by an adventurous au pair. An engineer from India, the only member of his family able to travel internationally, spawned the idea of changing viewfinders. A Polish tourist and his fascination with communal spaces highlighted our emotional connection to public places.

Our Earth 10 team, which also includes Carissa Carter, Melissa Miranda and Sami Chen, is still iterating, adapting and prototyping. Our original guiding questions was: how do we make climate change real, urgent, and too expensive to ignore? Now, we are thinking about the ways in which we could magnify the voices of vulnerable communities : How might we help people who are living and experiencing climate change expand their influence on the national conversation? Stay tuned.

Thank you to Vicky Chung for her brilliant editorial suggestions. And now, for the standard disclaimer: my opinions are my own and not those of my institution.
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