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the inaugural experiential learning class along with Thompson Center staff take a group photo

Innovation Through Experience; Solutions Through Creativity

Leaders at the MU Thompson Center for Autism & Neurodevelopmental Disorders take pride in the fact that the Center is on the forefront nationally in autism treatment, research and training. But even national leaders can find ways to improve “business as usual” in order to maximize the service provided to patient families.

When seeking to innovate better solutions for existing problems, it can be effective to include minds outside of the existing structure who may be able to see things differently. Enter some of the brightest minds at MU.

One of the hallmarks of receiving an education at the University of Missouri has always been the opportunity to engage in hands-on, collaborative coursework with real-world applications. Case in point is a new experiential learning course, first offered in the spring of 2019 featuring MU honors students. This course was designed to allow students to work with real-world clients to solve actual problems. To help further it’s educational mission, as well as to potentially receive valuable feedback from some of MU’s star students, the Thompson Center agreed to partner with instructors to serve as the first client for the course.

“It was a remarkable opportunity for us to partner with these student teams and gain their fresh perspectives on various process improvement projects,” said Abby Powell, center administrator at the Thompson Center.

students give their final presentation

Members of the social media student team present their final solutions.

At the beginning of the semester, the students in the inaugural experiential learning class split into teams to tackle three unique problems posed by the Thompson Center: 1) How to better serve patient families through more efficient rooming processes; 2) How to better entertain and manage patients and their siblings during hours-long appointments; and 3) How to grow the social media footprint of the Thompson Center nationally.

The teams met with Thompson Center staff periodically throughout the semester to learn about their problems, the current Thompson Center operations, as well as to update staff on their progress.

“We wanted to use proven creative problem-solving approaches as a central driving force within our process,” said Jim Flink, co-instructor of the course. “For instance, it took us several class sessions to ensure we had correctly defined the parameters of the problems, painstakingly going over every word in our problem definitions. That kind of attention to detail will foster a better learning process and, we hope, better outcomes. Each step of the way, we checked with our client leads to make sure we remained focused on course.”

This process of learning how to problem-solve turned out to be valuable for both the students and the Thompson Center, who benefitted from the ultimate results of the progress.

“The thing I benefited the most from this type of class was learning how to be more creative in my problem-solving solutions,” said Emma Knopik, a student in the class. “For example, one day we were given 10 minutes and a myriad of children’s craft supplies in order to make a prototype of our solution. Having creative activities like this taught me the importance of removing oneself from the traditional problem-solving space in order to generate more interesting ideas.”

“The problems we were asked to solve for the center were complex,” Flink said. “So much of what we tried to arrive at with the Thompson Center had to lend itself to efficiency, protecting the integrity of the center’s relationship with its clientele, and in offering true value to patients, families, patient providers and other staff, all without interjecting ourselves or our solutions overtly into the process. In other words, we needed to offer seamless solutions that fit with what the TC is already doing so well.

By the end of the semester, all three groups had thoroughly researched their respective problems and performed multiple problem-solving exercises. At the end of the semester, the teams presented their proposed solutions to the Thompson Center staff.

“The final presentations were incredibly impressive,” Powell said. “You could really tell how thorough each team was with their research and exploration of different opportunities for improvement in their areas.”

MU and Thompson Center staff watch the presentations

Thompson Center staff and MU faculty ask questions of the students following their final presentations.

Recommendations from the teams included different ways to mark clinic rooms as empty, clean, dirty or in-use, such as remote-control lighting, a smartphone app and simple plastic flags. Another team created an entire social media plan including recommending posting styles and content based on the various social media platforms in use. The final team developed different styles of age-appropriate activity boxes for patients and their siblings who have to wait hours during long appointments.

“Working with a real-life business like the Thompson Center made this class more beneficial because, as we learned more about the Thompson Center and the high-quality work that they’re doing, it inspired our group to dig deeper into our research in order to provide the best information we possibly could,” said Knopik.

“The suggestions and recommendations made by the students were really innovative,” Powell said. “It really shows the value in having an outside voice approaching problems from a different perspective. We plan on exploring several of their proposals and look forward to future partnerships with experiential learning initiatives.”

The class instructors say working with the Thompson Center provided a valuable opportunity for their students to expand their skills.

“We hope to build on the success of our initial proposals through future interactions, but suffice it to say, our students are so proud to say they worked with the Thompson Center,” Flink said. “This is what experiential learning can be for both education and industry — a value proposition that brings together the strengths of both sectors for the betterment of the public at-large.”

The inaugural experiential learning course was co-instructed by Dr. Suzanne Burgoyne, a professor in the MU Theatre Department. This course is a part of a new movement at Mizzou, led by Trulaske School of Business Dean Dr. Ajay Vinze and MU College of Engineering Dean Dr. Elizabeth Loboa, among others. This movement has led to the creation of the MU Institute for Experiential Learning, Innovation and Entrepreneurism, which seeks to incorporate research and real-world learning at every step of the college experience.