The Digication Blog

In the past higher education systems were often designed to deliver curriculum and few co-curricular activities were offered to keep students engaged as they pursued their degrees.

We have all heard of students working tirelessly to beat deadlines and earn passing grades for courses they don’t care about or don’t feel connected to their future goals. In these cases, higher education institutions left little or no room for students to explore their innate curiosity and creativity.

As higher education institutions have adopted models of design thinking to better support the needs and desires of today’s students, many positive changes have been implemented.

In this episode of Digication Scholars Conversation, we discuss the system at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with the Assistant Dean of First Year Experience, Murillo Soronso.

In his years of working with the University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Murillo has moved the first-year experience course from a less structured system to one which inspires students through creative explorations. They achieved this with design thinking, peer education, and encouraging students to document their experience using ePortfolio.


Murillo tells us about how he and two other colleagues made conscious efforts to learn the design thinking approach by enrolling at Stanford’s Life Design Studio. He explains that this studio is designed for people who wish to “learn more about how to apply life design thinking methods and mindsets into higher education.” From this week-long experience, they designed the ingenious creative strategy that inspires 2200 first-year experience students for their life and career every year.

What Does it Mean to Think Like a Designer?

The concept of design thinking involves creating solutions to problems by focusing on what one’s target needs above every other thing. The design thinking approach lies heavily in paying keen attention to the way people relate to their surroundings. It uses a hands-on approach to create mind-blowing solutions to problems. To put their students on a path of creative development, Murillo explains that he and his team encourage students to empathize with themselves.

“How do you understand yourself? You can do more of that by being curious about trying things out of the radical collaboration,” he says as he explains the UIUC's design thinking strategy while speaking on the podcast.

Unlike the usual practice where higher institutions encourage students to be nondivergent, the first-year experience program at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne teaches students to hone their creative development.

The over 2200 students that enroll for this course yearly are encouraged to be curious and open to trying new things. Although they are training to become a doctor, lawyer, or whatever their field of study may be, they are encouraged to listen to their environment; “is something calling you over there? It's okay to take a step to the side. Go and check it out then come back.”

Murillo Soronso also explains that they take their students to the museum as part of the program. While at the museum, the students are encouraged to move around, but “when something calls to you, we would like for you to interact with that object and then yes, we would like for you to sketch it to the best that you can from different angles because again, you can look at it from different ways. Then we want to reflect on that experience. What was that? What was it like when something called to you?”

Students are encouraged to develop in these new areas and find opportunities in them.

This creative development process helps students to understand that they can be open to new things. They learn to answer when new ideas call to them. They also get to understand that it’s okay to return to the status quo after interacting with a new idea and that they can also choose to stick to the “other path.”

Helping Students to Discover Themselves with the Design Thinking Approach

Perhaps, one of the most impressive parts of Murrilo’s discussion with Digication Scholars Conversation is the fact that students at this University are not boxed into conventions.

Although they are in a particular course of study, they are allowed to explore the length of their creativity in different ways. If they choose to change their major, they can only be glad they did because they won’t have to spend a chunk of their years pursuing a path where they wouldn’t find joy or fulfillment.

When junior and senior year students work as peer educators, they get to learn leadership skills and also learn about responsibilities.

“We want them to begin their leadership and professional development in this course,” Murillo explains.

He also tells us about students who decided to stick to the teaching profession after their internship role as peer educators. “We have had students who, after this experience, [sic] they are changed. They are changing [sic] say you know what? I really enjoyed teaching. I really enjoyed interacting with people in this environment, in this setting. Then they decide to pursue a career in education, or they're now …little bit more open to thinking of learning and development in their own future.”

Murillo Soronso also talks about how his students prioritize their mental health and their efforts toward this cause on campus in this episode of the podcast. You’ll also learn about how Murillo was able to learn English from scratch as a Brazilian immigrant who has also had the rare experience of spending a semester at sea in a floating university that moves around the world on a ship.

To unpack this insightful session, head on to Digication Scholars Conversation.

Don’t forget to subscribe to Digication’s YouTube Channel to stay up-to-date with our interactive sessions with erudite scholars who have had years of impactful experience in higher institutions.