UW Students Share Design Thinking Skills in Kenyan Project

SoHE student Emma Wiessner workes one-on-one with a Kenyan team member.

Photo: SoHE student Emma Wiessner working in Kenya
Blog by UW-Madison student Danielle Syse

Sustainable Design Thinking Team Journeys to Kenya

Over the past few years, University of Wisconsin-Madison students have been experiencing meaningful, real-world innovative projects through the student-run organization Insight Wisconsin. In an effort to unearth meaningful solutions, Insight Wisconsin encourages collaborations using the human-centered approach “design thinking.” Past projects have taken students around the globe with projects that range from properly designing products to marketing through analytics and integration.

Bringing in SoHE Expertise

On campus, SoHE is a leader in design thinking’s problem-solving strategies. So it makes perfect sense that when Insight Wisconsin began a project focused on a Kenyan community, they had SoHE’s Interior Architecture Faculty Associate Lesley Sager lead the campus team. Sager instructs design thinking at SoHE, including several new 2017 summer courses, and is the founder of MerryGoStrong, an active non-profit that served as Insight Wisconsin’s client for the Kenya project. Along for the learning adventure were SoHE students Emma Wiessner, a Community and Nonprofit Leadership senior, and Eve Horsetman, an Interior Architecture junior.

Design Thinking Comes to Light in Wisconsin

As a part of the design thinking process, a larger group of UW-Madison students first educated themselves on the Kenyan villagers and their needs. Through Sager’s lead and evaluation of available resources, the students agreed that the Kenyan communities would benefit notably by having inexpensive, solar-powered lamps. “They have no other lights for their homes,” student Blythe Ratzmann explained. “All of their activities are restricted by the sun.”

With this objective, students got to work creating a plan with goals of ensuring that the final users could easily assemble the lamps and that the production cost for each would remain under $3. They then began prototyping multiple lamp based on construction, sturdiness, and the number of LED lights needed to produce the most efficient illumination.

Design Thinking Heads to Kenya
SoHE student Eve Horstman shows trainees how to properly use a soldering iron.

SoHE student Eve Horstman demonstrates how to safely use a soldering iron.

Sager and the traveling team took several lamp designs to Kenya in late 2016. They began the testing in two Kenyan communities. Upgrades made in this phase included making the lamps waterproof, using available recycled materials, and a having fifteen-minute construction time. Forty lamps were produced and brought to Kenya by the end of 2016.

After testing, the students shared their new lamp construction expertise by working directly with Kenyan residents, including training them on the safe use of soldering irons. Working through difficult language barriers, the groups worked together to develop a strong lamp within the price point. The locals were then ready to share their knowledge with the rest of their communities. “As the women have now gained access to light during the nighttime, they are able to utilize more portions of the day to work on handmade projects which can be sold to earn money for the family,” stated Katzmann.

Final lamp construction:

7-8 LED lights
2 strips of copper tape
battery back
on/off switch
solar panel
water bottle and wood block housing

The team hopes to provide more materials and patterns as the design thinking and Insight Wisconsin program continues.

Read one student’s personal blog story here.
Learn more about Insight Wisconsin here.


No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.

—Charles Dickens

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