Mason Viewpoint – Dr. Padmanabhan Seshaiyer

Posted: February 3, 2018

Innovate. Create. Educate.

I created a course at Mason with a few faculty members called DICE –“Design Thinking, Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship.” It was about how we can have students solve problems collaboratively with a human-centered approach and at the same time, enhance their content knowledge. Design thinking is a problem-solving framework that helps the students to first work together and empathize and create needs assessments. Then they define the problems, ideate solutions, prototype a product, and then they test it.

The first time we did it we ran a course in one of the universities in South Korea. I took six students from Mason, and six students from South Korea, and they paired up to address challenges in health care using mobile devices. Following that, I ran the course again at Mason this time for students coming from multiple colleges focused on Solar as a theme. Usually all these courses will start with a very simple question –People place solar panels on the top of a house and then they say their job is done, but the reality is that the sun is moving. If the sun is moving, and the solar panel is not, the panel is not producing complete energy as it would if it were to move. The question is, can you move the solar panel.

That was the single question, and the whole course was about –what’s the physics behind it? What’s the math behind it? What are the policy implications? So, we ran the course. It was great. We built some rotating solar panels, big ones; we showcased them, and then we disassembled everything, and now it’s sitting in the corner of a room. It’s great for taking these items out, teaching a course, and putting it back, but it’d be even greater if we can actually assemble it in a developing country and actually have them use this, and then we have made a much bigger impact. The project is an innovation, but the fact that you’re delivering it to a developing country is an impact.

I’m always trying to figure out what would connect with students. The other side of the story is, if you present problems like that, subjects like mathematics that kids often hate becomes interesting to them. I’m a strong believer in changing our educational system from, here’s the mathematics go solve the problem, to here’s the problem, let’s find the mathematics to do it. Take the mathematics out and replace it with physics, it’s the same thing. We don’t often show them the problem first. We keep showing the tools first, and then say, “Go solve it,” but I think the educational philosophy should be completely reversed. That’s the only way innovations will happen. That’s the only way your creativity will spark. Creativity is super hard to actually teach. It does not naturally happen, you need the environment to spark it.

Interview by Robin Rose Parker

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