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Designing solutions, together

The School of Human Ecology had a lot to celebrate during UW-Madison Homecoming Week. Campus leaders, members of the Board of Visitors, and supporters gathered on October 28 for the grand opening of the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab.

At this ceremony, Dr. Soyeon Shim, Elizabeth Holloway Schar Dean of the School of Human Ecology, announced that thanks to the collaborative generosity of UW-Madison alumni and friends from all across the country, Human Ecology’s All Ways Forward campaign soared past early fundraising goals for a total of more than $70 million dollars. These gifts will support a series of special initiatives — including Design Thinking and Innovation.

“The philosophy of Design Thinking and Innovation — which seeks to keep a human-centered orientation for the technologies, products, and spaces we use every day — is the perfect example of the interdisciplinary approach that is the hallmark of Wisconsin,” said Provost John Karl Scholz.

Provost Scholz speaks at a podium in front of a red curtain, Dean Shim stands in the background
Provost Scholz and Dean Shim speak to more than 100 guests at the celebration (Photo © Andy Manis)

“The School has come to embody the message of inclusion, collaboration, and community, which have always been among its core values and intrinsic to Human Ecology’s identity and work.”

Alumna Dorothy A. O’Brien ’70 and her husband, Richard Antoine [’69 BS ENG], made the new Innovation Lab possible with their significant gift to the school and were present at the ceremony to help cut the ribbon on the new learning space.

A group of 5 people clapping
Dorothy O’Brien (left) and her husband, Richard Antoine (center) (Photo © Andy Manis)

“There are so many keys to this success and so many wonderful stories about individual and collaborative giving,” Shim said. “Each one deserves to be highlighted, from the many alumni who made yearly gifts to investments in special initiatives.”

The Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab is a flexible, multipurpose learning space for students. Its layout is optimized for teaching and learning design thinking strategies including collaboration, prototyping, and group ideation. The lab is an important step in Human Ecology’s continued dedication to the process of design thinking for our student body.

The forward-looking multidisciplinary Design Thinking initiative launched in 2013 to bring together partners across campus addressing real-world problems with a human-centered approach and a focus on the health and well-being of consumers, families, communities, and businesses. (Design Thinking encourages organizations to focus on the people they’re creating for, to develop products and services that truly meet human needs.) In a 2018 issue the Harvard Business Review described the explosive demand by employers to hire master’s degree graduates with skills in design thinking, product design, creative design or interaction design. To meet the need the Masters in Design+Innovation was developed with cross-campus partnership led by the School of Human Ecology, the College of Engineering, iSchool, Wisconsin School of Business, the Art Program at the School of Education, and the Global Health Institute. The first cohort launched summer 2020.

This problem-solving methodology is used across higher education and industries of all types — but Human Ecology’s involvement and leadership is a competitive differentiator for UW-Madison. After all, the study of human ecology is, at its core, about examining human relationships with each other and their environment and improving the human experience. This holistic approach to understanding human needs ignites new ways of thinking and creative approaches to practical problem solving.

The Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab provides an important space to foster creative engagement and interdisciplinary collaborations. Sarah Carter, associate professor in Design Studies and Executive Director of the Center for Design and Material Culture, spoke at the ceremony about her excitement around the lab and her hopes for the future: “I often find myself peeking in the door and watching students actively learn and work together in this gorgeous, sunny lab designed to maximize opportunities for creative engagement. I am so grateful to have this wonderful learning tool for our students and I am eager to invite our collaborators into this setting to see how the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab can truly scaffold innovative problem solving that makes a positive difference both on our campus and in our community.”

Lennon Rodgers speaks at a podium in front of a red curtain. Michelle Kwasny and Sarah Carter stand in background.
L-R: Lennon Rodgers, Michelle Kwasny, Sarah Carter (Photo © Andy Manis)

“When I look around this lab and imagine the future, I see design students from SoHE working alongside engineers, artists, politicians, data scientists, clinicians, and many other disciplines,” remarked Lennon Rodgers, director of the Grainger Engineering Design Innovation Labs. “I believe that the challenges of our times are multi-faceted and need collaborations cutting across many disciplines. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Dorothy O’Brien Innovation Lab will become a vital component of this interdisciplinary future.”

The lab — as well as other pioneering initiatives, investments in faculty, and student scholarships — were made possible by alumni and friends who supported the All Ways Forward campaign.

“It is all so very exciting, especially for our students — the leaders who will shape the future,” said Dean Shim. “Our gratitude will inspire our commitment to excellence now and in the years to come.”

About Dorothy O’Brien

O’Brien has tirelessly advocated on behalf of Human Ecology and has worked with numerous nonprofit organizations. She works both internationally and nationally creating social change and exemplifying the spirit of the School of Human Ecology. In 2015, O’Brien and her husband endowed the Dorothy A. O’Brien Professorship in Human Ecology. She received the School’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2019.