BU Professor’s Classroom Innovation Reaches Across Continents
Brian Kear practices what he teaches.
The adjunct professor and user experience designer (UX) at Bellevue University has harnessed his unique background to create a class from scratch -- achieving results beyond his expectations.
“It’s one of the projects I’m most proud of,” Kear says about the undergraduate-level course, called Thinking by Design.
Design thinking is a problem-solving methodology that incorporates five action-oriented phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
“I like to think of it in some ways like the scientific method,” the designer and educator says. Ultimately, the process is aimed at generating innovative solutions for virtually any problem or process.
After delving into each step with his class, Kear asks student-teams to choose a community issue they care about, put their heads together, and apply what they’re learning.
Upping the ante, the class concludes with presentations to a panel of subject matter experts, similar to the hit TV show “Shark Tank.”
“Depending on the topics, I seek out people working in those spaces,” he says. Panelists have ranged from a law enforcement officer to a foster care advocate.
Through group interaction and guest feedback, students are challenged to employ creative and critical thinking, collaborate, and consider divergent viewpoints.
What’s more, Kear’s class -- developed in conjunction with BU Assistant Professor JoDee Goracke and Opportunity Education -- has reached across continents, all the way to a classroom in East Africa.
Kear works closely with Mussa John Challa, who teaches Thinking by Design at an OE partner school in Moshi, Tanzania. Their classes connect periodically via video chat, which has kindled new friendships and expanded worldviews.
“It’s an eye-opening experience for students on both ends,” Kear says. “It’s stretched my students to consider issues outside of an American cultural perspective.”
Challa has reported similar results. “He’s seen the minds of the students shifting,” Kear says. “They’re starting to realize they can make a difference through design thinking in their community.”
Four years after its conception, the course has earned rave reviews. Kear is proud of the progress, yet -- like any true design thinker -- he keeps soliciting feedback so he can make his product better.
“I’m applying what I’m teaching,” says Kear, who’s learned a thing or two about applying design principles and creativity.
Born into a military family, Kear moved around the country as a child, eventually planting roots in Bellevue. He studied graphic design as an undergraduate and worked in Washington DC for several years before making his way back to the Midwest.
Soon after, he accepted a design job at BU, which also allowed the opportunity to earn his master’s degree debt free.
As a fine arts graduate student, Kear received the prestigious Pratt Entrepreneurial Award, which distributed funds to jumpstart his own creative design business. After purchasing a screen printer and laser cutter, he was armed with the machinery to match his ambitions.
“I got to take all these designs I had in my head and do something with them,” says Kear, who specializes in branding as well as print, web, package, and product design. “I’ve created and sold many different products.”
One of his best-sellers is a bottle cap map of the United States, intended to encourage people to travel, he says.
A travel junkie himself, Kear’s adventures have taken him around the world -- from Ireland to the Philippines, where his mom grew up.
“When I travel to different places, I look for design,” he says. “I get inspired by what I see, the people I meet, and I can translate those things into my work and create something new.”
Kear’s master’s thesis explored the connection between creativity and courage, debunking the misconception that only certain people are creative. Rather, he says, creativity is a skill that anyone can cultivate through practice and personal experience.
Kear also applies his creativity during his day job, working to enhance learning and engagement for BU students and other stakeholders navigating the university’s online presence.
“It’s been a balancing act,” says Kear, who teaches two other courses at BU in addition to his UX design duties and freelance projects.
Despite his hectic schedule, Kear can’t deny how perfectly his personal and professional experiences align. This synergy fuels his hunger to improve as an educator and design thinker, knowing that he’s practicing and teaching powerful skills that have the potential to transform lives.
“I’ve seen my students grow,” Kear says. “I hope they continue to take the things they’re learning and apply them in their jobs and the community to make a bigger impact.”