PBS Documentary To Feature Stanford’s Extreme Design MBAs

Students enrolled in Stanford's Design for Extreme Affordability course tackle pressing problems for nonprofit partners in the developing world

Students enrolled in Stanford’s Design for Extreme Affordability course tackle pressing problems for nonprofit partners in the developing world

Stanford University’s northern California campus is known for its balmy weather, but on this particular day a mini-monsoon strikes a group of students at the school’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known among design-thinking cognoscenti as d.school. The Design for Extreme Affordability class has been tasked with building a freestanding structure capable of collecting a torrent of rainfall. Divided into eight groups, each team receives a $20 bill and 72 hours to complete the challenge. The group whose contraption collects the most water from a supercharged sprinkler in five minutes wins.

The assemblages of plastic tarp, tape, string, and sticks take a rough beating when the water pours down. In fact, every group fails the challenge. But it’s all part of the lesson plan, according to professor Jim Patell, who co-founded the course. “Their whole life they’ve been successful … they’re used to the first shot being really pretty good. This process is foreign to most of them,” he explains.

Launched in 2004, Design for Extreme Affordability brings Stanford students across disciplines from business to engineering together to learn about design thinking, a framework for innovation that encourages creativity and customer feedback. The students spend two quarters learning the basics of design, prototype development, field testing, and interdisciplinary collaboration. The course culminates in a real-world challenge where the stakes are much higher. Ten teams of four students are paired with nonprofits in the developing world and assigned a pressing problem, ranging from providing incubator care in India to designing affordable irrigation pumps in Myanmar. They have 10 weeks to propose a solution, build a working prototype, and lay out a business plan.


An average of 100 students compete for 40 spots each year. The chosen applicants are divided into teams that represent a wide variety of skill sets, so MBAs are paired with medical, engineering, and even undergraduate students. “One of the [application] questions we ask is describe a situation in which you took a leap of faith. We read that question pretty carefully because that’s really what we’re asking people to do,” Patell says.

Patell, who holds a PhD in business from Carnegie Mellon University and a master’s in engineering from MIT, has worked to increase cross-campus collaboration at Stanford over a career at the B-school that spans nearly four decades. This class plays into that vision, but it hasn’t been easy. “Everybody says they want to be interdisciplinary, but the unintentional barriers, barbed wire, and brambles are significant. It’s a constant fight, and it all comes down to simple stuff,” he says.

Bringing everyone together for a class that meets on Monday and Wednesday mornings as well as Thursday evenings can get tricky. “That’s why there are teams of only four students–it pushes you to the barrier of impossibility: If we went up to five students, the chances of them being able to find several hours to meet for group work goes to zero,” Patell points out. “So it’s simple stuff like scheduling. It’s not bad blood, silos, or arrogance; it’s just hard. There are just an awful lot of moving parts to coordinate.” He even dubbed himself the class’ CO or crack occupier to fill in the gaps in communication. “Now, I’m just the CSA, continual source of amusement,” he quips.


He’ll earn a new, if inadvertent, title this week: film star. Filmmakers Ralph King and Michael Schwarz found the class so compelling they decided to create a documentary around it. On December 11, PBS will premiere EXTREME BY DESIGN, which chronicles the progress and pitfalls of two MBAs and an engineering student who took the two-quarter Design for Extreme Affordability class in 2011. The film documents their teams’ information-gathering trip to the developing world and the ensuing mad dash to churn out a viable product on Stanford’s campus.

Pamela Pavkov, one of the MBAs featured in the film, signed up for the course during her second year as an opportunity to work with students across the university. “It seems to me that’s kind of the real world, where we have to learn to work with non-MBAs,” she points out. “I also have a real passion for thinking about ways to apply business acumen to helping the bottom of the pyramid, so to speak,” she adds. Pavkov’s team for the field project included an engineering student, a medical student, and an undergraduate with product design experience. The team was tasked with creating an affordable breathing device to prevent infant pneumonia deaths, in other words a device with the potential to save thousands of lives each year.

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