In June 2019, Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design named Stacie Rohrbach as the Director of Graduate Studies for the MDes, MPS, and MA programs. Rohrbach is an Associate Professor who teaches Designing Experiences for Learning, Communication Design Theory and Practice, Design Studio and Thesis Preparation courses for students across the undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral programs.
As Director of Graduate Studies, Rohrbach’s role focuses on the framing, delivery, and trajectory of the program, how it evolves, and what might be beneficial to change. On a more tactical level, Rohrbach works closely with other faculty members to assess and refine the curriculum, organize and run thesis prep courses, and oversee admissions processes. Rohrbach’s role is instrumental in creating a positive learning experience for graduate students so that they feel appropriately challenged, prepared for industry practice, and well positioned to become future thought leaders.
Rohrbach is no stranger to the School of Design. She is a former student herself (Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design, Class of 1996) and has been teaching with the school since 2003. She credits CMU professors like Karen Moyer for instilling in her a love of design and learning.
This interest in design and learning was further solidified in her graduate studies at North Carolina State University (Master’s in Graphic Design, Class of 2003). In a program that excels at educating educators, Rohrbach learned about the role of cognition and perception in designing for learning. Her interests in improving learning experiences also stems from her own struggles as a student.
“I hit lots of stumbling blocks, largely because of how information was presented to me,” said Rohrbach. “I was always drawn to using visuals to make things easier to understand.”
Her academic and personal experiences have had a large bearing on her research focus— design for learning in formal and informal settings. Rohrbach believes that design has an important role to play in helping people understand information, act on what they learn, and enjoy themselves throughout the process.
She is particularly interested in informal experiences where individuals are not required to engage in learning, asking herself “how might we tap into people’s interests and foster their curiosity so that they want to participate?” Often this includes looking at the role of motivation in learning.
Additionally, Rohrbach is drawn to the challenge of designing learning experiences for many people while still addressing the needs and interests of each individual by asking the question “how might experiences be design so that they can be adjusted or adapted to the individual learner.” Rohrbach believes that this requires leveraging learners in participatory and co-design processes, which may help them maintain curiosity and become lifelong learners.
Rohrbach also applies her research focus to her actions as a professor. The classroom allows Rohrbach to challenge herself to teach to the individual as opposed to the group. Her favorite part about teaching is when a student demonstrates a deep understanding or “unconscious competence” of the subject matter.
“I get excited by the way [students] hold themselves when they talk about something they’ve learned,” added Rohrbach. “They exude confidence when their new knowledge and skills become part of themselves and they don’t even have to think about it. It’s at these points that I am most proud of them and seeing the innovative ways they apply what they learn to new situations—there’s nothing better.”
As for Rohrbach’s aspirations for the graduate program, she emphasizes the notion of ethical and meaningful practice in design.
“Designers have immense responsibility and opportunity,” said Rohrbach. “In the School of Design we often describe challenges through STEEP (social, technological, environmental, economic, political) lenses, which represent areas where designers can play an important role. Our aim is to teach [students] ways of using design to improve the lives of all living things.”
To help move the program in this direction, Rohrbach is interested in fostering more relationships with employers who are working in these spaces and providing students more opportunities to work with other disciplines.
Based on Rohrbach’s guiding question, “Why can’t learning be fun for people throughout their lifetime?”, the school will no doubt arm graduate students with a growth mindset necessary to navigate the ever changing, ever multi-disciplinary design landscape.