Critical Connections: Concept Mapping Empathy, Human Centered Design and Wicked Problems


The students decided to create an initial map connecting the main concepts of each article.

The students used colors to signify the five different teams. They also used the three different size notes to signify detail. The shape of the map grew organically and was later refined by Mia Aguilar, Communications, who adopted the visual language created by Liz Diaz-Gunning, Civil Engineering and Julia Hanly, Nursing.

A detail of a team concept map. By Riley Dehmer, Mechanical Engineering and Raphaelle LeBlanc Organizational Communications.

A detail of a team concept map. By Audrey Sauter, Computer Science and Ethan Figueredo, Computer Science.

A detail of the large concept map. Featuring notes by Cooper Sloan, Mechanical Engineering, and Mia Aguilar, Communications; and Hannah Kelly, Theater and Justin Manahan, Marketing.

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Duration: 3 weeks
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Project Brief

The Innovation Minor cohort of 2021, comprised of students from various majors including: civil engineering, mechanical engineering, computer science, nursing, communication, sociology, organizational communication, and marketing; collaborated to generate a Concept Map featuring of five distinct online articles. These articles combine to inform the conceptual framework of the course: INV300 - Empathy, Observational Research, and Human Centered Design. The context of the course resides in Wicked Problems that the city of Portland, Oregon is facing on a day to day basis including: social justice, climate change, and the impact of COVID-19. 

Working within small teams students had to read, discuss, and understand the content. They were then tasked to write their own personal statement about the text and post to a Moodle Forum module.

After working within smaller teams, students convened as a class (for homework) to create a large Concept Map, mapping all of the texts together. They were prompted to use the web-based software MIRO. 

The entire assignment was completed remotely and across 3 timezones.  

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe a personal perspective on the readings and how the reading might influence their development of their major area of study (ie. how might empathic design influence your marketing degree?)
  2. Collaboratively analyze and combine various pieces of text revealing critical points of discussion around design and innovation. 
  3. Demonstrate the methodology of Concept Mapping as a means of facilitating group discussions on complex pieces of information, abstract ideas, and concrete evidence.
  4. Demonstrate the use of an online mapping tool. 


  1. 500+ word written response
  2. A Concept Map created in MIRO
  3. Each student providing a verbal presentation of a section of the Concept Map 



  1. Empathic Design
  2. Why Human-Centered Design Matters 
  3. User-Centered Innovation is Not Sustainable 
  4. On Design Thinking
  5. Wicked Problems


Conducted in Fall of 2020. This is the second iteration of this project. The original format involves the creation of a physical object or display that communicates the key concepts of each article and how they connect to other articles in the class. 

The method of Concept Mapping lent itself to the use of an online tool such as MIRO and facilitated a remote online collaboration. This format and assignment worked perfectly under the conditions of a fully remote semester due to COVID-19. 

What went well?
Students were able to self organize, identify a team leader, and collaborate to complete the assignment. As the first project during this fully remote semester, the entire online collaboration went really well and the tool (MIRO) played a big role in making the project a reality. 

I had no idea what to expect as I personally have never created a concept map of an article before. An underlying teaching point was to demonstrate how the method of Concept Mapping can be used in any context and content. During discussion, students exposed how the method can be used as a note taking tool, collecting interview notes, or as a tool for generating and connecting ideas. 

I was highly impressed with the outcome and the inclusive and collaborative performance of the students who were all working remotely. The project kicked off the Fall 2020 semester with high expectations, positive team morale, and the students were able to teach each other rather than listen to lectures by an instructor over Zoom. Lastly, the assignment forced the class to embrace the aesthetics of the digital platform which placed an emphasis on the clarity of the content and how that clarity was communicated via its arrangement.

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