Approach to Teaching

Many of today’s students are eager to pursue careers in innovation and impact and we need to prepare them to do so.  In addition to gaining a comprehensive technical education, they need to be able to identify important challenges, conceive of novel and useful technology, build them, and bring them to fruition. Yet, upon graduation, they often lack collaboration and implementation skills needed to bring their ideas to market.  Existing training provides partial, but incomplete preparation.  Lectures provide technical detail to large numbers of students, but don’t often teach collaboration. Lab instruction provides collaborative hands-on-learning but lacks the complexity of real world problems. Faculty selected projects are often well-scoped real world problems, but are not personally meaningful to the students. To prepare our students for successful careers in innovation, in addition to the rigorous technical skills, we need learning opportunities to appropriately teach them how to collaborate, apply learning to real world problems, and develop perseverance and passion for problem solving.  I describe how I foster these critical skills and attitudes in the classroom.



In my experience, the most interesting innovation opportunities occur when a diverse set of scholars, professionals, and students collaborate across disciplines.  Scholars, professionals, and students benefit when brokering knowledge across otherwise disconnected disciplines because they are able to realize the potential of applying familiar knowledge to new problems. With this goal in mind, I have co-taught many classes with faculty from the engineering, business, and arts and humanities schools and practitioners from industry (ex. IDEO, Hewlett Packard, ebay, Procter & Gamble, Fidelity).  Modeling this type of collaboration contributes to rigorous classroom discussions in which various perspectives are represented.  Learning theory suggests that student diversity also contributes to this multi-perspective taking. I have thoughtfully composed classes and teams of students from diverse academic backgrounds, ethnicity, age, and educational level.  A team may include an undergraduate of communication studies from France, a master’s student of design from India, a doctoral student of psychology from the US, and a postdoctoral student of computer science from Singapore.

My most memorable and challenging teaching experiences have come from simultaneously teaching undergraduates and strong-willed master’s students who try to resolve their respective theoretical and applied perspectives.  I challenged both groups to take the perspective of the group with whom they disagreed.  Both were surprised to learn from the others’ perspective and exhilarated by the experience of doing so.  As an instructor, I believe it is my responsibility to facilitate collaboration between a diverse student body, researchers, and industry partners to maximize learning and innovation through multi-lens perspective taking.

Outside of the classroom, I seek opportunities to develop best collaborations with colleagues in the academy, industry, and government based in the US and abroad. For example, I have hosted two NSF sponsored workshops on Design and Innovation Education and presented at the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers in Engineering Education and Korea’s National Research University KAIST’s Design Forum. I have served as an advisor for University of California, Berkeley’s Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation’s new Master of Design degree with Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design for students interested in design, policy, and activism, the Rick and Susan Sontag’s Center for Collaborative Creativity to build creative capacity and practice collaboration across the 7 different Claremont Colleges, and Stanford’s Design Impact program focused on radical collaboration with industry and governmental experts to make meaningful society impact.  So that more people can learn from these experiences, I share these best practices through opinion editorials for the popular press (Gerber, 2019; Gerber, 2018; Gerber, 2017, Gerber, 2016a, Gerber, 2016b, Gerber, 2014, Gerber, 2013; Gerber, 2012) and publish novel collaboration methods for academic and industry leaders (Gerber and Fu, 2018; Gerber, 2009; Gerber, 2007).

Apply Learning to The Real World

My goal has been to strengthen the connection between the university teaching and research, industry concerns, and real world challenges. I rely on my academic expertise as well as my industry experience to develop authentic learning opportunities, course material, design homework assignments and group projects, conduct lectures, lead discussions, and successfully advise students on their individual and group projects. I designed and delivered curriculum for six new courses for Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute, an institute intended to advance innovation through interdisciplinary collaboration, the Technology and Social Behavior PhD program, and the Bay Area Immersion Experience.

For the first class, I collaborated with Professor Don Norman to create a master’s level class on the application of design thinking methods to service design. The course projects require the students to apply their academic coursework to real world problems, implement solutions, measure success and failure, and reflect on the experience.  Over the past twelve years, I have co-taught the course with leaders in the design industry and partnered with senior executives from Chicago based non-profits such as Erie Community Health Center and Kohl’s Children’s Museum to address immediate business concerns including philanthropic crowdfunding, child safety and queuing, meaningful use of online medical records for low income patients, protection for youth with severe allergies, and queer youth identity formation.  On average, our partners adopt at least one of four proposed solutions each year – a high rate of adoption for such short engagements.

Based on the popularity of the graduate service design course, for the second class, I created an undergraduate class service design class.  I partner with campus services such as the Office of Equity and Center for Civic Engagement to address pressing students concerns including mental health, sexual assault, financial aid, career advising, voter engagement, and student entreprenuership. On average, university leaders choose to continue working with one of the six teams after the class ends.

For the third class, I collaborated with Dr. Mike Horn (Computer Science and Learning Sciences) to develop a doctoral level course in Design and Emotion that required rigorous research, design, implementation, and evaluation of new products, services, and experiences for publication in highly competitive HCI conferences. When teaching this course, I realized that the doctoral students lacked exposure to design theory and methods across disciplines as well as professional experience critical for presenting their research.

To address the students’ lack of exposure across disciplines, I developed an additional course, called Design Research. In collaboration with a doctoral student, I designed the course to help doctoral students understand and situate their own design research across a range of disciplines including engineering, psychology, art, and management.  I challenged them in thinking critically about the similarities and differences of these theories, methods, and practical implications.

To meet the need to communicate effectively, for my fifth class, I developed a doctoral level course titled, Communicating Your Research, with Northwestern colleague and data visualization expert Dr. Steve Franconeri, to expose students to the theory and practice of visual and verbal communication of complex topics to diverse audiences, which attracts students from across the campus. Each year, enrollment has doubled as students and their advisors realize the profound impact the course has on their performance.  Most recently, I had students from Northwestern’s seven of eight Evanston’s based schools.  Due to the success, I adapted this class for a cohort of undergraduates at the university’s new campus in San Francisco for the inaugural Bay Area Immersion Program, an interdisciplinary program in design, journalism, and entrepreneurship which I launched in 2017. This sixth course focused on effectively communicating the design process and products to diverse stakeholders.

In addition to developing new coursework, I have guided MBAs through industry sponsored project to apply their classroom learning in operations and design to immediate business challenges such as creating a culture of innovation (Kaiser Permanente), improving follow up for incidental findings and increasing meaningful use of medical records (Northwestern Medicine), improving user experience of personalized health app (Northwestern Medicine), enhancing sales (Herman Miller), and improving the user experience with hand held diagnostic kits (Abbott Laboratories). I have also taught the required first year course for engineering students, Design Thinking and Communication, where I introduced Life Cycle Analysis Design to the established curriculum (Gerber et al., 2010).

Ultimately, all of these blend real world problems and academic theory resulting in culminating projects that synthesized both theory and practice.  My future goal is to develop an additional course to address students’ demand and expand the reach of one course.  Undergraduate students are eager to learn more about design research than what I can teach them in two weeks.  I plan to design an undergraduate design research course to introduce students to qualitative and quantitative design research methods including data collection, analysis, and synthesis. Given the popularity of the Communicating Your Research course across the campus, I plan to design a MOOC that makes the curriculum available to researchers throughout the world who struggle to effectively communicate their research.

Perseverance and Passion in Problem Solving

Talent alone does not lead to successful problem solving. Passion and persistence are critical for overcoming the inevitable obstacles and uncertainty that characterize innovation work. My goal is to help talented students to learn what problems are important to them and society and how to push themselves toward success.  With this intention, my graduate student, collaborator,  and I created the Project Scoping Wheel (Rees Lewis, Easterday, & Gerber, 2015). Rather than handing students problems to address, the Project Scoping Wheel guides students through a series of questions to help them understand if the problem is important and feasible and if they are sufficiently motivated to solve the problem. To help students understand if the problem they selected is important to them and to society, we ask them to consider the following questions: Are people’s lives highly affected by the problem?  Does the problem appear in national news? Are current solutions to the problem lacking in some way? If you had a minute with the President, would you talk about this problem? To help students gain insight into the problems and get regular feedback (both positive and negative) on their mock-ups, we ask students to identify community partners within 15 minutes of campus.  Using the scoping wheel, my students progressed from a large and unwieldy problem statement “How to reduce obesity in the US?” to “How to help Chicago school children make healthier snack choices after school?”  To help students push themselves towards success, my students and I also created Mock-ups, a card game designed to help designers rapidly generate and test new ideas (O’Keefe, Hoffman, & Gerber 2016).  Due to the popularity of the game, I designed and manufactured thousands of professional quality decks for global distribution in education and industry.  Mock-ups was selected as the World of Learning’s Top Ten Makerspace Favorites in 2018.  My future goal is to develop and disseminate more tools to support problem solving through the Loft and Design for America platforms described in my research statement.

Integrating Research and Teaching

In the past twelve years teaching Northwestern University, I have successfully interwoven my research agenda with my teaching responsibilities. In the classroom, I have expanded my thinking into new areas of theoretical inquiry, validated my research, and gathered insight into the organizational and technical relevance of my work. As indicators of influence and respect from peers for integrating research and teaching, I was asked to create two new courses for Coursera’s Massive Online Learning platform titled, Organizational Leadership: Leading Design Innovation and Experience Design: User Research and Prototyping, which have reached more than 42,000 students to date. My teaching approach is peer reviewed in the International Journal of Engineering Education and highlighted in the press including Fast Company, US News and World Report, Forbes, and Oprah and generously funded by the School of Engineering, Office of the Provost, and Northwestern Alumnae. As a result of my teaching, I received the highest teaching award at Northwestern, the Charles Deering McCormick Professor for Teaching Excellence, the Meshii Award for Design Education, Provost’s Fellowship for Digital Learning, the Searle Teaching Fellowship, and a place on the Association for Student Government Academic Honor Roll.  I have also received international awards for my teaching including The Computer Science and Engineering Undergraduate Teaching Award from the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award. I believe that my success is motivated by my love for the subjects I teach, my interest in how people learn, and my extracurricular training in improvisational theater and outdoor leadership.

Student Success

My teaching is most evident in my students’ success. They have received more than 50 local and national awards for their technical innovations including Forbes’ 30 under 30 Award, Crain’s 20 in their 20s, Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit Award, Wall Street Journal’s StartUp of the Year, and an invitation to the White House Demo Day. The four of my graduate students who applied for the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Award received the award and most recently, my post-doctoral student received the National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Fellowship Award. My students were invited to present their innovations to President Barack Obama, Warren Buffet, and the World Design Organization. They regularly give TedX talks and have been featured in such outlets as MIT’s Technology Review, The Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, and ABC News. If not running their own companies (ex. Bossy, Brave Initiatives, Somewhere Labs, Swipesense, Sproutel), my students are most likely to be in full time user experience, service, product, or engineering design positions at technology companies including Google, Facebook, Intuit, Apple, and Microsoft or smaller start-ups.  Many are pursuing master’s or doctoral degrees in top programs such as Stanford, UC Berkeley, University of Washington, Royal College of Art/Imperial College. Former graduate students hold faculty, post-doc, and administrative positions at such places as University of Michigan, Northwestern University, Tokyo College, University of Colorado – Boulder, Washington University at St. Louis, and DePaul University. See Figure 3.



Gerber, E., 4 Emergent Truths about the Human/Tech Relationship, Medium, 2019

Gerber, E., 8 Steps to Running a Successful Design Thinking Workshop, Medium, 2018

Gerber, E., 4 Essential Mindsets to Design Thinking, Huffington Post, 2017

Gerber, E. Engineers Should be Taught to Fight, Medium, 2016a

Gerber, E. & Thomas, A., How Language Influences Who Innovates, Huffington Post, 2016b

Gerber, E., What Entrepreneurs can learn from the Olympic Snowflake, Wall Street Journal, 2014

Gerber, E., McKenna, A., Hirsch, P. and Yarnoff, C. Learning to Waste – Wasting to Learn? How to Use Cradle to Cradle Principles to Improve the Teaching of Design. International Journal of Education, 2010

Gerber, E., Using improvisation to enhance the effectiveness of brainstorming. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 2009

Gerber, E., Improvisation principles and techniques for design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, 2007

Gerber, E. & Fu, F. Improv for Designers. Funology 2: From Usability to Enjoyment, Blythe, M. & Monk, A., Editors, Springer, 2018

O’Keefe, A., Hoffman, K., & Gerber, E. Mockups and Round Robin Feedback: Iterating Through Critique, Venture Well Open Conference, Portland, OR, 2016

Rees-Lewis, D., Gerber, E., & Easterday, M. Supporting Project Scoping: The Scoping Wheel, in Proceedings of Harvey Mudd Design Workshop IX, 2015