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Stanford's Institute of Design: School for world changers

Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley, create 'empathy driven' curricula, which push design that improves lives.

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But putting these ideas on paper isn't enough. Cohen emphasizes that the course is about "trying, not talking."

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Teaching frugal innovation is not limited to the d.school. Silicon Valley's start-up spirit has created similar courses at nearby Santa Clara University and University of California, Berkeley.

Tapan Parikh, a professor at Berkeley's School of Information, has been teaching an interdisciplinary course on information communication technology for social enterprise for the past two years.

He attributes the emergence of these workshop-style courses to a growing interest in new markets, fresh technologies, and a blending of the two with a social mission.

"There's definitely more demand than the course can afford," says Dr. Parikh. "But, yes, this is definitely associated with the growing interest in social enterprise. What students are realizing is that they can work full time on work that's fulfilling, socially rewarding, and aligned with their values. And they can do it in firms and with job titles and salaries that are very comparable to their peers'."

Parikh's course gave rise to NextDrop, a for-profit company that aspires to resolve water-distribution problems in developing countries such as India. Shortly after completing their pilot testing, three of his students were awarded a $375,000 grant by the Knight Foundation.

Yasser Bhatti, who will take a semester away from Oxford University's Said Business School to join d.school this fall, says that much of the allure of these new programs comes from how they give students the resources – financial and academic – to put their ideas into action. "It gives you a sense of 'I'm in control; I can make a difference,' and that the results would be immediate, no matter how small or big they might be,' " he says.

Compared with a "bleaky" desk job at the United Nations, where Mr. Bhatti had worked before, the "self-empowerment and control in innovating and commercializing solutions," he says, "is what makes students opt" for programs such as d.school.

George Kembel, d.school's director, sees a growing fervor for innovation among students. They created d.school, he says in an e-mail, because they saw design becoming a more collaborative process, "and students from across the university were hungry to see themselves as creative."

So, they gave them just that – free-form courses that have become successful incubators for student-led businesses.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misspelled Anuraag Chigurupati's name.]

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