Skip to content Skip to navigation

David Kelley wins the National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize

David Kelley wins the National Academy of Engineering’s Gordon Prize

The founder of Stanford’s d.school is honored for “almost single-handedly” transforming the way engineers are educated.
January 13, 2020

David Kelley: My goal has always been to help students at Stanford believe in their natural creative abilities. | Photo by Patrick Beaudouin

The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) has awarded Professor David M. Kelley, founder of Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, or d.school, its 2020 prize for educational innovation for developing a curriculum for design thinking, which helps students cultivate empathy and creativity in order to make better use of their technical know-how to serve human needs.

NAE will present Kelley with its prestigious $500,000 Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education at a March 13 ceremony on the Stanford campus.

In announcing the award, NAE President John L. Anderson said Kelley had “almost single-handedly transformed the way engineers are educated at Stanford and other universities” by pioneering a wide range of frameworks and methods for students to immerse themselves in any design challenge, define the crux of the problem through the lens of the people who experience it, and then rapidly prototype and test a wide range of ideas.

“Through his initiative of introducing ‘design thinking’ into engineering curricula, he stimulates engineers to seek innovation in solving human challenges in addition to technical ones,” Anderson said.

Jennifer Widom, dean of Stanford Engineering, where Kelley serves as the Donald W. Whittier Professor in Mechanical Engineering, said that over the d.school’s 15-year history its approach has attracted a diverse mix of undergraduate and graduate students from the social sciences, humanities, business, and law, in addition to engineering. The d.school is a truly interdisciplinary hub, where each year more than 1,000 students drawn from all seven of Stanford’s schools take classes, collaborate on real-world projects, and launch solutions that have made significant impact in health, law, economic development, education, and more.

“We’ve seen that students are eager for the collaborative, interdisciplinary, ‘enlightened trial-and-error’ approach that David pioneered,” Widom said.

Kelley, who played a vital role in the design program during his 35 years as a teacher, also founded the global design company IDEO, where he both developed and employed many of the design thinking principles. Kelley’s best-selling book, co-authored with his brother Tom, Creative Confidence: Unleashing the Creative Potential Within Us All, described the powerful effect on many individuals of employing design thinking.

“My goal has always been to help students at Stanford believe in their natural creative abilities and innovate routinely,” Kelley said. “When we started out at the d.school, I was trying to figure out … is this working?” Recalling how students reacted during early d.school classes, when the faculty would debate how best to approach problems instead of expounding on solutions, “You could just see the students’ eyes sparkle,” he said. “We were empowering them to think and act in new ways, and we knew we had something.”

To help Kelley incubate the d.school, then-dean Jim Plummer found him space in a trailer at the edge of the engineering campus. “Working with David was one of the most consequential, and fun, things I’ve ever done,” said Plummer, who found that design thinking jibed with his own notion that engineers needed not just deep technical skills but also a broad humanistic understanding, a combination that Plummer described as the T-shaped engineer.

recent magazine article looking back at the d.school’s trailer days cited one of its first courses, Design for Extreme Affordability, which still challenges Stanford students to use design thinking to dream up simple, inexpensive, but often life-changing or life-saving technologies like a solar lantern now used by 100 million people worldwide, machines that add vital micronutrients to grain to prevent malnutrition, or an affordable brace to treat children born with clubfoot, a leading cause of disability in the developing world.

“What David did in that trailer was create an environment and establish the right culture so that faculty and students could experiment together with a new form of education. At the time there was no other environment where a course like Design for Extreme Affordability and so many others could flourish in the same way,” said Sarah Stein Greenberg, who was a student in several inaugural d.school courses and today serves as the d.school’s executive director.

Stanford Engineering faculty have won the Gordon Prize twice before. In 2018, Professor Paul Yock was honored for founding the Stanford Byers Center for Biodesign, a program that trains aspiring biomedical leaders in a need-driven approach to developing and disseminating cost-effective technology innovations that benefit patients around the world. In 2009, Professors Tom Byers and Tina Seelig shared the Gordon Prize for promoting entrepreneurship education in engineering through the Stanford Technology Ventures Program.

The Bernard M. Gordon Prize for Innovation in Engineering and Technology Education was first established in 2001 as a biennial award to acknowledge new ways to develop and train engineering leaders, but in 2003 the NAE decided that the prize should be awarded annually. First chartered in 1863, the NAE provides independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology, and is part of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, an independent, nonprofit organization chartered by Congress to provide objective analysis and advice to the nation on matters of science, technology, and health.