It’s 4:30 a.m. on a Wednesday in March, and students enrolled in Eat.Think.Design. are exploring Oakland’s wholesale produce market in Jack London Square. As the forklifts carry crates of fruits and vegetables and workers do their usual loading and unloading, the students take note of how the morning ritual flows and how it can be done better.
“We emphasize out-of-class learning,” says Jaspal Sandhu, a lecturer at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, who has been co-teaching the PH290 course every spring semester since 2011 with Dr. Nap Hosang, lecturer and director of the School of Public Health’s On-Campus/Online Professional MPH program.
“I read his [Jaspal’s PhD] thesis and it became clear to me that one of the things we could bring to the School was design theory and human-centered design approaches to solution finding,” says Hosang. Sandhu is a partner at Gobee Group, where he focuses on service innovation and technology design in public health. He agreed to accept the challenge after a bit of cajoling from Hosang, and together they set about designing a course.
What they came up with was PH290: Designing Innovative Public Health Solutions. The course utilizes problem-based learning and urges students to create unique approaches to solve common public health problems.
When not out in the community, students convene at the Cal Design Lab in Wurster Hall, an experimental studio space that promotes hands-on, interdisciplinary design activities. The classroom feels like a start-up office: there’s a constant exchange of ideas, there are white boards with lists and charts, and sticky-notes reign supreme.
Eat.Think.Design is very popular with Berkeley students in many majors beyond public health, including architecture, engineering, business, and public policy. This diversity of expertise makes it a hotspot for cross-disciplinary idea exchange and a chance for students to expand their horizons.
Take, for example, Orianna DeMasi, who is pursuing a PhD in computer science and enrolled in the course after receiving a recommendation from another engineering student. Her project group is working with Clinton Health Access Initiative to help treat childhood diarrhea in Uganda and East Africa at-large.
“It’s this very tangible, hands-on project,” says DeMasi, noting that the problems she is required to tackle for this class are different from her usual computing tasks, mainly because she’s dealing with people and not locked away with machines. “It’s different than what I’m used to doing, but you grow when you step outside of your comfort zone.”
Designed with change in mind
“Digital media and the consumer product side of the world understand the need for innovation,” says Sandhu. “But it wasn’t happening in public health.”
After three years it was clear that Sandhu and Hosang had tapped into an unmet need. The course was well received and word spread about the public health class that thrived on interdisciplinary dialogue. And, in keeping with the spirit behind the class, just when everything was going well, the curriculum was revamped.
“We’d kicked around the idea of having a theme for years,” says Sandhu, “but more than anything, we needed change.”
This semester the course explored the theme of food. The topic was partly inspired by the number of nutrition students who took the course last spring. Another motivation was Sandhu’s desire to focus on a subject that he felt wasn’t getting enough attention.
“We have entire silos that do nothing about the food system,” he says.
Given the new focus, they invited Dr. Kristine A. Madsen, assistant professor in the Joint Medical Program and Public Health Nutrition.
“I saw this as an opportunity to learn more about design innovation with the hope of taking it back to my research,” says Madsen, noting that it has also influenced how she teaches her other courses.
Learning to innovate: step by step
So what does it look like to teach innovation? First, students are required to come to the table with grand ideas. Next, students prepare three-minute pitches for projects they’d like to spend the rest of the semester researching, developing, and hopefully implementing. In Spring 2014, 15 ideas were presented, and eight survived. Students were then assigned to groups based on how they’d ranked the ideas. The groups usually consist of three students, each from different disciplines.
There are new ventures like “Sariwa,” the Tagalog word for fresh, which works to create healthier versions of traditional Filipino food. This group recently ran a pop-up restaurant for an evening at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley. Other groups took on clients. The “Building Brand Advocacy” team works with Revolution Foods, an Oakland-based company that provides healthy and affordable meals nationwide for grades K-12.
The next step is to let the students navigate obstacles on their own.
“They are very good at giving non-answers,” says Justin Jones, a first-year MPH student in the Health Policy and Management program, referring to Sandhu and Hosang. “Of course they give parameters and guidance, but the pedagogy is very experiential.”
Finding a problem, seeking a solution
Multiple experiences and willing to experiment helped Jones and his group select a client.
“We started with a broad idea,” says Jones. “We wanted to work with locally produced food and figure out how to expand the market to include more people from a lower socio-economic status.”
At first, the group thought about trying to connect restaurants to local farmers and cut out the middlemen, therefore decreasing prices. But eventually they decided to redesign the Heart of the City farmer’s market in San Francisco method of collecting and processing money from Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) purchases.
“The systems in place are inefficient,” says Jones.
Under the current model, EBT users are given color-coded tokens to use at farm stands. The chips are different from the ones used by credit card-bearing shoppers. At the end of the day, these tokens are returned to Heart of the City staff who sort through them by hand.
“It’s not like they haven’t tried to do something different,” Jones notes. “They just have so many challenges.”
The group created two prototypes that were well received by their client. One is a pouch with two compartments to keep tokens separate and thus cut down on sorting time. The other is a cash box with specially designed slots that makes counting tokens easier.
Up next: A redesign
“Part of our goal here is to disseminate ideas into the School without us shaking our hands in the air and trying to make a fuss about it,” says Hosang, who hopes that more courses and departments will embrace the design approach to problem solving.
And while food has been a very successful topic, the theme will only be around for two more years. By then, Hosang expects courses in epidemiology or policy might find ways to include food in their discussion, leaving his team to focus on something new.
“We don’t do things more than three times. In the past when I’ve done things a fourth time, I’ve been bored,” Hosang says with a chuckle.
“Innovation is about not ever getting comfortable when you are doing well,” agrees Sandhu. “If you’re going to teach a class about innovation, you can’t be stagnant.”