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Life Design Initiatives Help UCM Students Solve ‘Wicked Problems’ They May Face in Education, Life and in Career Decisions

By Jeff Murphy, January 10, 2022

 Alex Wilson and Jessica Johnson Interview
Alex Wilson, left, University of Central Missouri senior Digital Media Production major from Richmond, Missouri, discusses his experience with UCM’s Life Design course as a guest on the “Mules on a Mission” podcast with Jessica Johnson, assistant director of career readiness who also teaches the course for Career Services.

WARRENSBURG, MO – While the challenge of getting into college can be stressful, additional anxiety often accompanies a decision overload with students pondering which degree to pursue, and what they want to do with it once they graduate. Through initiatives that have been shared with educators across the United States, the University of Central Missouri is helping students tackle these tough decisions and more by incorporating design thinking principles into the student experience. The result of such efforts at UCM is a range of new opportunities from career readiness courses and learning facility upgrades to presentations that introduce this model for solving what researchers have called the “wicked problems” individuals may face in education, life and in making decisions about careers.

Design thinking is a concept fueled by work at Stanford University, which includes hosting training events thorugh their Life Design Studio. The December 2020 session was attended virtually by eight UCM representatives. After putting what they learned to practice, university members in December 2021 returned to the studio. This time they had a presentation role sharing information about UCM initiatives over the last several months that were also recently published in a Stanford case study.

Life Design is based on the best-selling book, “Designing Your Life,” written by Stanford faculty members Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. In their work, the authors show readers, regardless of their age, occupation, or where they are, how they can use design thinking to create a meaningful, fulfilling career and life. The authors include steps for individuals to employ empathy, curiosity, collaboration and action to help them address questions or concerns that may stand between them and their journey to a successful future.
Long before attending the Life Design Studio, Amber Goreham, director of Career Services, said she and her colleagues began thinking about the possibility for implementing Life Design concepts into the UCM student experience. Once Career Services staff members and other UCM partners participated  in last year’s event they were further inspired to move quickly with the integration of this model into university programs.

“It was the best virtual training any of us had ever been to,” Goreham said in talking about the Life Design Studio. “It was very transformative for every one of us who attended.”

From these participants’ newly obtained knowledge and enthusiasm grew new opportunities for UCM students. Career Services, with help from partners across campus, began in January 2021 to launch a series of design thinking initiatives that included a project that was embedded in Career Readiness Courses (UNIV 3000); the establishment of the Design Your Life Committee with individuals across campus who attended the studio; and presentations that were made during the 2021 fall kickoff event to 600 incoming freshmen on how to design their university experience. Additional measures have included launching two one-credit-hour Life Design courses offered during the fall 2021 semester and prototyping the first employer session using design thinking methodology and brainstorming techniques to help employers develop strategies to better recruit college students.

Approximately $80,500 in federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) also was used to create a more technologically-advanced collaborative space in Ward Edwards 1200 to house Life Design courses. This same location hosts the Learning Lab which has benefitted from sponsorship funding by Kansas City area engineering firm Black & Veatch. 

“Our space looks phenomenal,” Goreham said. “Now we truly are a state-of-the-art center. We have the technology, we have the furniture so we can collaborate, and it is a very creative space. Part of this is because of CARES but also the philosophy behind Life Design and thinking.  It provides a space where students can be creative, which relates to them thinking about their future goals.”

She added, “The overall vision of the center is to help students make connections and build upon the knowledge that will lead them to a meaningful college career, and to be successful when they leave here.” 

Jessica Johnson, assistant director of career readiness, was among those who participated in the Life Design Studio, and taught the eight-week Life Design courses, which are continuing this spring. She said students taking this course learn how to use tools and resources to help them design steps they can use to reach a decision. Students, for example, may enjoy the classes they are currently taking, but they may be uncertain about where their education is going to take them. Many of them may be thinking, “I love what I am studying, but I don’t know what my next step is, and I feel stuck.” 

“Life Design helps the student to visualize how to get ‘unstuck’ and how to play out what they possibly could be doing through the passions and interests they already have and will have as they keep moving forward with their lives,” Johnson said.

Students taking the Life Design course learn how they can use “prototyping” and “testing” to help them with decisions that may impact their lives. A student who is having difficulty deciding on a major, for example, may begin with a low-risk prototype which would involve learning more about career opportunities. Testing occurs when they actually seek out an individual such as alumnus followed up with a guided conversation about the field they are considering. Taking design thinking a step further, a high-risk prototype may involve seeking an internship and testing through hands-on experience in the field long before a student graduates.

“We talk about starting with low-risk prototypes that will hopefully lead to more high-risk prototypes that hopefully will lead to a more clear and defined path of things that a student is passionate and excited about,” Johnson said.

Alex Wilson, a UCM senior from Richmond, Missouri, recently joined Johnson on the Career Services’ “Mules with a Mission” podcast to talk about his experience in the Life Design course, and how it has helped him plan a successful pathway to completing a bachelor’s degree in digital media production. He said the tools and resources he found through this opportunity are like “duct-tape for life.” 

“I was in an interesting situation where I was a transfer student going from just getting an associate degree to trying to cram  in a bachelor’s in two to three  years, which was a lot, and I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Wilson said. “So, I went to the Life Design class looking for advice after college, but what I found was –  not only did I have that post-college early career advice, I found a lot of tools that have helped me shape this last year. I feel very organized now, and have laid everything out. I know what I’m doing.”

Goreham and Johnson said Career Services continues to work with campus partners to develop more initiatives that will incorporate the Life Design model.

While looking for ways to touch more students, they are also hoping to find ways to reach other individuals who could benefit. This includes alumni.

“That’s one of the things I think is so great about it,” Goreham said. “Regardless of whether you are a recent college grad, a mid-life career changer, or you are retiring, this framework and model can help you no matter where you are in life.”

To learn more, contact Goreham ( or Johnson (



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