By Morgan Knowlton

Engineers solve problems, and we have become too content with that. We need to renew our focus towards identifying needs along with solving impactful problems. 

The foundations for this reflection were laid when I started volunteering at LaAmistad, an Atlanta-based program founded by a former Georgia Tech student that offers after-school tutoring for Latino students. A semester later, a prototyping class through the Scheller College of Business served as the catalyst. When the professor tasked us with developing a product to address an unmet need, I jumped at the opportunity to leverage this assignment in support of LaAmistad. Our team decided to switch topics a few weeks into the semester, but I was able to continue the original project independently through the Ideas to Serve (I2S) competition.

The I2S competition is hosted by the Scheller College of Business, but its principles and values align with the heart of industrial engineering. This past year the competition embraced its mantra of “Know What You Don’t Know” by dedicating more than half of the competition to the Problem Discovery track. In this track, students are evaluated on their comprehensive understanding of a social or environmental issue without the pressure of generating a solution.

This approach strongly echoed the prototyping course, in which the professor cautioned (much to the amusement of his students) that if we had a solution before eight weeks he “didn’t want to hear it.” I was surprised by the shift in emphasis from my typically solutions-focused engineering classes, yet I recognized that this methodology was highly reminiscent of my extracurricular industrial engineering training. For instance, Lean Six Sigma Green Belt training focuses on root-cause analysis, and “Band-Aid solutions” were purported as Public Enemy No. 1 in my process improvement internship.   

This idea plays on a common criticism of engineers today: We can design whatever we dream, but our dreams do not perform in the market because we fail to sufficiently understand consumers. As a proud engineer, I fell for the folly. The first step in my problem discovery journey was speaking with the families supported by LaAmistad. I attempted to go into the parent meeting with an open mind, but in my head I was already designing solutions to alleviate a space constraint faced by some of the students.  Pursuing that idea would have been a huge mistake because I would have missed the overarching issue. Over the nearly two-hour meeting, I repeatedly heard that the parents’ biggest frustration was truancy. The training of the I2S competition helped me discover this underlying issue so that I can develop an impactful solution. 

The problem is not with solutions, but solutions based on underdeveloped problem discovery. Most of the world rushes through the problem discovery phase, which can lead to temporary or even incorrect solutions. I love that the I2S competition is teaching students that comprehensive problem discovery is critical to problem-solving, and my goal is to spread this message to Georgia Tech and LaAmistad students. 

Morgan Knowlton is a fourth-year ISyE undergraduate student concentrating in economic and financial systems. For the 2019-20 academic year, Knowlton is interning in the Disney costuming department in an industrial engineering role. She plans to return to Georgia Tech and to volunteering with LaAmistad in fall 2020, where she will develop solutions for the organization’s challenges.

Additional Information on Ideas to Serve

The Ideas to Serve Competition encourages and incentivizes the in-depth discovery of any particular social/environmental issue a student is passionate about. Students who are interested in understanding complex social problems, and may already be involved in community-based projects are encouraged to apply in the Problem Discovery track. Those who have completed their problem understanding phase, and are ready to explore solutions – preferably through community partnerships – will join the Solution Discovery track.  

MGT 4803-J (CRN#31167): Social Impact: In-depth Exploration and Design, offered in the Spring (Mo-We 4:30 – 5:45 pm) is a course developed specifically for I2S participants. It is a series of workshops and class discussions that helps teams prepare for I2S. In this course, students will master problem discovery tools like the Impact Gap Canvas, Asset-based Community Development, Human-centered Design, systems thinking, social impact assessment, customer discovery, and more.

There will be an I2S info lunch session on October 24 at 11 AM in COB 101. RSVP here.

Contact Dori Pap ( for more information about the course or the Ideas to Serve competition.


ISyE undergraduate Morgan Knowlton presents her project at the 2019 Ideas to Serve competition.

For More Information Contact

Shelley Wunder-Smith

H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering