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Collaborating Without Borders

Posted November 12, 2013 in Classes & Presentations

Wide as the gap may be – spatially, culturally, linguistically – between West Michigan and Nicaragua, educational communities from each region are becoming increasingly united by the transformative power of collaboration and design.

In 2002, Grand Valley State University professors Dr. Paul Lane and Dr. John Ferris created the Applied Global Innovation Initiative (AGII), a program that brings students from West Michigan to Nicaragua in order to help students from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (in Spanish: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, UNAN) design, create, and market products in ways that maximize the potential of existing local resources. KCAD got involved last year thanks to Industrial Design professor Jon Moroney, who suggested that adding the design thinking perspective of KCAD Industrial Design students into the equation could help fuel the momentum of the UNAN students’ entrepreneurial design endeavors.

The infusion worked, and now a recent push to further open dialogue between educational leaders of each region has set the stage for an even more fruitful relationship between the AGII and UNAN.

Recently, a delegation from UNAN, comprised of Vice President Monchita Rodríguez Pérez, Dean Víctor Gutiérrez, Director of Extension Francisco Moreno, Professor of Physics Rubén Dormus, and architecture student Ingrid Rodríguez Pérez, traveled to West Michigan to visit organizations involved in AGII. Guided by Lane, Moroney, KCAD Dean Vic Liptak, and junior Industrial Design student Justin Beitzel, the group toured various spots on campus, including the FlexLab, the Baker Furniture Collection, and the Industrial Design spaces. Throughout the tour, the conversation kept circling back to the mutual benefits of the partnership.

Delegates from The National Autonomous University of Nicaragua and leaders from Grand Valley State University and Kendall College of Art and Design.

(from left) Jon Moroney, Dr. Paul Lane, Víctor Gutiérrez, Monchita Rodríguez Pérez, Rubén Dormus, Ingrid Rodríguez Pérez, Francisco Moreno, Vic Liptak, Justin Beitzel

For UNAN leaders, the opportunity to observe the KCAD ecosystem firsthand built on the pedagogical influence already garnered from the Industrial Design students who participated in the AGII.

“Learning how KCAD operates, how it interacts with its students and the community around it, has really helped us understand how we might improve our own University,” said Manchita Rodriquez Perez. “We want our students and our faculty to be more creative in the ways they learn and teach.”

The group tours the FlexLab

The group tours the FlexLab

KCAD students, on the other hand, are pushed outside their comfort zones and return home with a more acute sense of how far the importance of collaboration and design extends beyond the walls of academia.

“Going out into the world to teach the concepts that we’ve learned in class really engrains them in your head,” said Beitzel, who traveled to Nicaragua this past summer. “You also have increased constraints because [in Nicaragua] they don’t have the wealth of materials and technology that we have here. But those constraints are good because they force you to get back to the basics of design: getting out of the box to do the most with whatever it is you have to work with.”

The group examines digital fabrication technology

The group examines digital fabrication technology

The dynamic learning environment that the AGII and UNAN have created is most impactful in the way it engages communities at large. In Nicaragua, this is evident in the fact that many people who are not students also interact with the design thinking and collaborative design processes.

“In Nicaragua, people are often possessive of their ideas,” said Dormus. “This partnership has done a lot to encourage the learning and sharing of new ideas. If we are to have change, we must first be open to accepting it.”

Rubén Dormus and Ingrid Rodríguez Pérez

Rubén Dormus and Ingrid Rodríguez Pérez

West Michigan in turn benefits from an educational community that knows the value of students who are able to apply themselves globally as well as locally.

Individual and organizational benefits aside, what’s most important about the relationship between the AGII and UNAN is that it exemplifies the ability of design-thinking and collaborative design to bridge cultural gaps and help people everywhere journey to a better tomorrow.


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