DFSI: Making the Changemakers of Tomorrow, Leaders Today

Columbia’s students are eager to apply their education to some of the world’s most pressing issues. Design for Social Innovation brings things into the present, offering students the opportunity to make tackling the world’s issues a part of their education. 

Each year, Design for Social Innovation (DFSI) brings together students from diverse backgrounds and disciplines to dive in and tackle real world problems in real time while still in school. Participating students are selected through an application and interview process, and are then placed in interdisciplinary, diverse teams and given a client to work with for the semester. In the Spring of 2020,26 students from 7 schools, worked with 6 clients around the world.

“These are not simulations or case studies. They’re entrusted to work with their client on serious problems facing communities right now – problems such as human rights abuses, education access, and deradicalization – and they’re tasked with moving the needle on the problem in a meaningful way,” explains Professor Holloway.

“We teach them a human centered design methodology for unpacking and reframing problems. Our job as instructors is to guide them through this problem process, but the students are the ones making key decisions based on what they learn,” adds Professor Royalty. “Our students gain real world experience collaborating with stakeholders which directly prepares them to have an impact after they graduate .” 

Students have worked with such organizations as community support-system Harlem Children’s Zone, human rights organization WITNESS, and international education organization Aga Khan.

“I would absolutely recommend this class to just about everyone, but especially to people who want to expand their problem-solving framework, or feel frustrated about the state of the world,” said Binta Coulibaly, Columbia College, who worked with General Assembly on better connecting their tech learning opportunities to low-income and minority college students in NYC. “I remember the moment I realized I could use my creativity and empathy towards developing solutions for issues I care about. It is very powerful and gratifying to help people, and it’s even better to learn while doing so.”

Students not only have the chance to make a difference in the world, but also come away with valuable work experience that they do not get in a traditional classroom.

“Being able to work with clients is a much-needed experience. Since all our classwork is theoretical, we don’t get the opportunity to practice certain skills like communication and listening,” said Zein Freiha, Barnard, who worked with WITNESS. “With this class, you have to be fully engaged with your clients as well as your clients’ clients.” 

“As an engineering undergrad I think this course forced me to bring a level of maturity and professionalism not necessarily as essential in other courses. Organizing countless interviews with students and professionals, managing client interactions, and trying to keep everything on track all helped me grow skills I wasn’t expecting to in this course,” said Ridley Eastland-Fruit, Columbia Engineering, who worked with General Assembly.  “Being able to essentially work on your own design consulting team with a real client for a semester is an amazing opportunity.”

“I would absolutely, without hesitation, recommend this class to others. One huge benefit is the opportunity to collaborate in teams with students across all of Columbia’s various schools, learning from their perspectives and approach to problem solving,” said Jeremy Seah, Columbia Business School, who worked with the Aga Khan Foundation. “Not every class changes your mindset and shapes your opinions about the world, but DFSI most certainly did.”

“We were so pleased to have the energy, insights, and creativity of these Columbia students infused into our organization,” said Latasha Morgan, Director of Parent and Community Programs at Harlem Children’s Zone, Inc.. “In fact, the partnership worked out so well that the team that worked with us during their Spring semester has decided to continue volunteering with us to further contribute to the HCZ mission. They have been a tremendous asset for our community, especially during this time of real need.”


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