EXPLORING THE USE OF DESIGN THINKING AS A STRATEGY FOR ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEM-SOLVING IN POST-SECONDARY CIVIL ENGINEERING STUDENTS

M. Léger, A.M. Laroche, D. Pruneau

Université de Moncton (CANADA)
This study is part of larger research project on the application of design thinking as an approach to finding creative and sustainable solutions to environmental problems. Three case studies were conducted in 2018-2019 on separate Canadian university campuses. The goal was to study how Canadian students used design thinking as a strategy for solving complex environmental and social problems. In this paper, we look to present results from one of these three cases, specifically the case of engineering students from the Université de Moncton (New Brunswick), who attempted to find creative solutions to a local water contamination issue using design thinking. Our case study represents a scholarly significant contribution to postsecondary STEM education.

Design thinking is a creative and collaborative approach to respond to users’ needs in which intuition plays an important role, solutions are numerous, experimentation happens rapidly, and failures are perceived as learning opportunities (Liedtka & Ogilvie, 2011). Concretely, the design thinking process follows the following steps according to Brown (2009):
1) Observation-inspiration,
2) Synthesis or redefinition of the problem
3) Generation of multiple ideas (ideation),
4) Prototyping of ideas,
5) Testing of prototyped ideas, and
6) Communication of the final product.

This process of solving environmental problems differs from the typical civil engineering strategies, which also comprise six steps. Due to time considerations, the present study focused on the first four steps of the design thinking approach, comparing them to the corresponding steps of the typical civil engineering approach. The objective of this study was to explore the use of design thinking as a learning strategy in the context of a civil engineering program, more specifically in a class focused on solving water treatment problems. We also looked to study the use of Information and communication technology (ICT) as an adjunct to learning through design thinking.

The methodological approach guiding the present study is rooted in the qualitative research paradigm. We followed students from the Water Treatment class of the civil engineering program tasked with solving a water treatment problem in a nearby community. The class was randomly divided into two distinct groups, one using typical engineering problem-solving strategies (n=8) and the other using a design thinking approach (n=9). Both groups were directed to use collaborative technical tools (i.e. Facebook, Google Drive, Microsoft Teams) as adjuncts to the problem-solving process. Data was collected over four months, through collective semi-directed interviews at every step of each approach. We also kept a research journal, in which observations and continued analytical thoughts were recorded for each group. We used thematic content analysis of transcribed interviews to build a comparative picture of environmental problem-solving. Observations from research journal served as corroborative data.

Finally, in terms of results, civil engineering students using design thinking to solve the given problem seemed to find more creative solutions than their counterparts. Furthermore, the design thinking solutions were more feasible, likely since they were based on the needs expressed by the citizens affected by the problem. Regarding the use of ICT in the problem-solving process, both groups reported being better able to coordinate work tasks as a team using ICT.