FYI: Kern Maass on Applab

Learn how an interdisciplinary group of professors and students are solving community problems through a process called design thinking.


  • Dave Blanks: Hey there folks it’s Dave Blanks from the University of Communications and this is an FYI podcast. It will consist of a short interview designed to inform you, the Appalachian Community about campus happenings. I’m joined today in studio with Kern Mass, Associate Dean for the College of Fine and Applied Arts. Kern earned his master of fine arts in furniture design from Savannah College of Art and Design. Kern teaches some interesting courses of upper level design studios and furniture studios. Kern is also the leader and driving force behind AppLab and that is what we are going to be discussing today. What is Applab and why and how you, the listener, should get involved. Kern thanks so much for taking the time to come down here today and talk to us.

    Kern Maass: Sure thanks for having me.

    DB: What is your official title concerning AppLab? I said you were the leader and the driving force, did I get that right?

    KM: I don’t even know if I have a title for that. I came up with a proposal and pitched it to academic affairs and we have been rolling with it since then.

    DB: When was that?

    KM: That was in the fall of 2014. We did a pilot run last year and we are on our second cycle now. That would have been in about August of 2014.

    DB: Alright, so that’s where it all began, that is where AppLab began. Where did you get the idea I guess we should start there at the beginning?

    KM: I would say through a lot of different iterations and proposals working with faculty in terms of doing some innovative things. It kind of crept up that way and from the years coordinating the industrial design program we do a lot of sponsored studios. The faculty does a lot of sponsored studios which is bringing in industry partners where they sponsor a class and our students work on creating solutions for them. In that process over the years the projects kept getting bigger and the partners wanted us to design more and more things for them. Industrial design could have come up with good solutions on our own realized that we could offer clients a lot more by going outside of our own discipline. We reached out to the communication depart was one of the first, then the art department, to the college of business and realizing that our solutions would be that much better if we had that many more eyes in that much more disciplines and lenses. We kept doing that more and it evolved into how can we work across campus whether the university is our client or non-profits in the community or the community in general is our client to provide real world solutions with our students for everyday problems.

    DB: How many students do you have working on this, I understand it is quite a few. You have professors as well from different colleges as you were saying it’s an interdisciplinary situation and problem solving through design thinking is one big aspect. That is the overriding aspect of AppLab, so who is involved and where does it happen?

    KM: We are working out of Charleston Forge we use the space that Appalachian has at Charleston Forge, so that’s where the students are.

    DB: In the industrial park?

    KM: Yeah right over in the industrial park. The reason for that goes back to the big goal of the project which is to break down academic silos. So that we can work across departments and identify them and can work together. Our solutions will be better if we have more eyes on them. In terms of finding space, we needed space that the students have access to 24/7. That way when they work on a project they leave all of it there, they can leave all the stuff on the walls all their projects there and they can come back to it whenever they want. They have the culture that they need to be there 24/7 because investing a lot of time is how you’re going to come up with an innovative solution using this design thinking methodology. We could have used space in industrial design, but I think if other students came to that space it wouldn’t feel like it was theirs. A crucial element was creating a space that was unique where the students could have ownership of and access to 24/7 which is why we are at Charleston Forge. The students are from eight different disciplines and we have eight faculty from recreation management, exercise science, biology, management and other disciplines within the College of Business, Industrial design. We have some graduate students from sustainable technology and the built environment and some students from entrepreneurship from the college of business.

    DB: Still in communications?

    KM: Last year we had communications. We had communication students this time, they’re in a branding the campaign course, so those students that’s another twenty five student on top of the twenty five in the AppLab project. Those communication students work like a communication agency with those specific teams, so they are matched up.

    DB: To market…?

    KM: To help them crafting their message and getting that message out. Just like in industrial design product design. You can create a great product, but if you can’t tell a story about it then it is useless. Our students have realized that pretty quickly that if they come up with a great solution, but they can’t message that and tell that story that’s what the need the communication students for. It helps them through the process even if they only think about it from presentation to presentation they start to think about… sitting down with someone and doing an interview you have to know your topic and how to push that message forward. Just being prepared for an interview or working with those communication students they’re going to have to be on point all the time. The reflection to get to that point helps them drive their idea that much faster.

    DB: This sounds like an awesome experience and an incredible real world learning experience in college. What do you think that the main benefit, if you could pick one, I’m sure they’re many benefits, for the student that participate would be? What’s that one take-home?

    KM: I think even though they’re going to learn design thinking and that methodology and how to find that solution it is the intangibles along the way. It’s about having to work towards defining and finding a solution for something in a team. Each team is interdisciplinary students and we do a lot of team building and leadership. We bring in the center for student involvement and leadership to work with our teams. I think what students said last time was understanding their discipline by having to apply it through other disciplines and that team mentality of that is what they are going to do when they get out into the real world. They are going to be on a team it won’t just be them working individually, so that experience they got from that has been intangible, but students often see as they come out of the project they find really important.

    DB: It’s great that it can be fostered in this place at AppLab while they’re still in college. That is an awesome experience. What specifically are some of the problems they are working on? Highlight some of the things they have solved so far.

    KM: They’re just in the beginning process. The students were given seven to eight topics that they got to rank in terms of what they were interested in. That was a big part of making sure the students felt they had buy in an ownership of the projects that they worked on. Those projects this year were all based on the campus-community and sustainability this year. One of the topics is how might we increase disability or universal access on campus? Another topic is how might we link student skills and passions to opportunity. We have two teams working on that one, that one is one of our most popular for the students. We have how might we increase access to food and recreation to low-income families? We have how might we increase walkability for the community and we have how might we work on creating carbon balancing for the campus and community?

    DB: Did you get them all?

    KM: I think so!

    DB: Those are some very interesting problems to be solved. All of those seem like they would benefit the community and would be challenging for the students to figure out how to solve. Do these solutions that they will come up with eventually do they have real world applications or do they stay in AppLab and that’s where they live?

    KM: That’s something we are working on. Last time the students report to our review board and they’re all external to campus. Last year we had the founder of an angel investment firm, we had a design firm principal, we had an assistant secretary of commerce, we had folks from economic development from here in Boone. This year we have a different set that all closely tied into entrepreneurship. Part of that is getting these folks involved and getting their direction for these teams and helping get buy in. If there is something viable this review board can help direct us and shape those ideas to getting funding or becoming something that is truly tangible at the end. Last year two of the solutions became mobile applications they angel investment firm was interested in merging those and possibly providing seed money at that point. They were all seniors, they all went their different ways and weren’t really interested. That’s something we are working on this year to try and make sure we incentivize and incubate these ideas so that they do come to fruition.

    DB: So the apps didn’t happen, is that what you are saying?

    KM: Yeah, that is correct the apps didn’t happen.

    DB: I was going to say what was it?

    KM: One of them was kind of a hybrid application merging the ideas of craigslist and eBay for finding local food and purchasing local food. The other one was an app that a linked a basic grocery list and all kinds of retailers to what local food they currently had giving you pricing, if it was available and information about the farm it came from.

    DB: Those are very interesting ideas. I understand that failure is a big part of the entire AppLab process can you explain a little bit about how that works?

    KM: Absolutely, so the design thinking process is a bunch of different phases about converging and diverging on your topic and idea. You go and do a lot of research and open up your mind to changing the context of what your experience brings to it and abstracting the idea. Eventually you have to narrow that down and figure out which direction you are going, so you close down and open up. During that process failure is a good thing, failure means you found some information or you got some ideas and basically you test that against where you are going and your insights. Sometimes your insights are going to be incorrect so the process is not linear you are always going back and swirling around to previous phases. If something doesn’t work that’s good news that means you ran up and tested it, it didn’t work so you have to back and find some more insight or get a little more information and you keep doing that until you get to the end. We celebrate when you misfire because it’s a data point, you understand that is a data point and we are going to go back and find a different route.

    DB: Is AppLab in the entire concept a unique methodology in education? It seems like it is rare to me.

    KM: I would say AppLab overall, the structure of AppLab here is. The process of design thinking is not; lots of institutions are incorporating design thinking into courses. It has been around for better than a decade especially within the design disciplines. In terms of how we use it here and imbedding it across campus into all the different disciplines we incentives faculty to work on the project by giving them reassign and research stipends, but there has got to be something there for the students too. I would say one of the really innovative pieces is that we make it so that all students who work on AppLab get a discipline specific credit toward their degree. Trying to work within all those moving parts at a large university is difficult at times, but I say that process of the whole structure making it work across campus across all disciplines is innovative.

    DB: Would this be an element of the innovation campus concept that’s being explored currently?

    KM: Yes, it’s been talked about that AppLab could be one of the funnels for students or faculty that might be one of the ways that they work within the campus.

    DB: This project seems daunting, to say the least. They’re so many moving parts. What is the benefit for a professor, I know you had said it was incentivized for professors, what do you gain from it, what do the professor who participate gain from it? And how do they participate if they are interested?

    KM: As a faculty member participating in it and coordinating it, I’m also teaching on it, but I think all the faculty members who were involved last time wanted to be involved a second time. It was transforming for all of us for one to learn about our peers on campus by working with them and seeing how everybody brings a different lens to the project and each one is important in terms of the context in creating a viable solution. It was transformative about learning from each other, but all… it’s a messy process it’s not linear. I think you have to be comfortable with messy and that it is not this perfect step-by-step. We would meet at least once a week out of class time as faculty just to figure how we need to step on the gas or the break this week to identify where our students were and were they getting the information or did we need to present it in a different way. I think we spend three months planning last time and we did again this time. We probably threw the schedule out the window after week two because we realized we were in there applying in we had to do some things differently to make the process work on the initial pilot course. For faculty I think they would get that, it’s an incentive for them to get to know other faculty and learn about other disciplines and how we all really do work together to create a better product as a whole at the end. It’s been transformative.

    DB: It’s such an organic and flexible experience it tailors itself to what the people who participate in it need, it seems.

    KM: Absolutely.

    DB: If somebody wants to get involved or if you want to find more information about AppLab can you just go visit?

    KM: Yeah, sure. The students have access the Charleston Forge space 24/7 they have specific lab hours that they are there. We teach the course seven to nine on Monday nights or they can always contact me if they want more information. We are getting ready to hopefully role out next year’s cycle very soon in the spring, so we will be putting out a call for faculty that are interested as well as students that are interested in being in the cycle next year.

    DB: Will there be an email or something like that?

    KM: I hope so; we are in the process of developing a website. That’s part of working with the communication students this time around and working with Ucom to develop websites, blogs, information about AppLab in general. That way there is a repository go to place for people to learn about and I expect that to be up pretty soon.

    DB: We should do a podcast or something like that.

    KM: That would be great!

    DB: Kern Mass thank you so much for joining us today to talk about AppLab.

    KM: Thank You!

    DB: This has been FYI you can check out more Appalachian State University podcasts by going online and searching for Appalachian State in the iTunes store. Check out any of our podcast there or go to I’m Dave Blanks thanks for listening have a good one!