Dice Yamaguchi: Professor of Pivots

Pam Sornson, JD

‘Pivoting’ seems to come naturally to Dice Yamaguchi, an Industrial Design professor at Pasadena City College (PCC), as his pivot from in-class to online teaching was a relatively easy task to accomplish. His extensive training and experience in design, engineering, and art all facilitate his uniquely adaptable skill for pivoting to unique and often delightful solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges. His students, therefore, were not just able to remain ‘at school’ (albeit remotely) during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they also gained resilience skills as they pivoted with their leader through his transition to the digital classroom forum.


Pivoting in Pursuit of Goals

Yamaguchi has always been intrigued by engineering puzzles (as a self-described ‘STEM geek’ even in high school) and began his college education in mechanical engineering. However, that discipline failed to capture his equally artful imagination, so he pivoted to industrial design to pursue his creative drive as well as his urge to build. The art+engineering combination took him through studies at both PCC and Pasadena’s ArtCenter College of Design (ACCD) and into a notable career as a physical and digital product designer.

His talent was such that ACCD took him on as a product design instructor just two years after he graduated, and there, he discovered his love of teaching. He launched and has been leading that school’s Summer Intensive program for high school students since 2012. He began teaching PCC students in the Visual Arts & Media Studies department of PCC’s Industrial/Product Design program in 2015.


Pivoting Through Problems

In the Spring of 2020, the COVID-19 concern posed not a challenge but a ‘fun exercise’ to Yamaguchi. Not at all dismayed by it, he chose to view the online transition as a ‘project’ and eagerly encouraged his students to work with him to navigate it. Together, he and his two classes worked through the bugs that are inherent in any big project: how to communicate across teams; how to achieve goals using different tools; how to stay on course when forced to travel a different road than was expected.

His work was a little bit challenged by his student’s circumstances. Some had all the resources they needed readily available at home, while for others, the at-home learning situation presented some daunting challenges. Yamaguchi happily worked to accommodate them all, holding virtual office hours at their convenience, and expanding ‘class time’ to include whatever time frame was needed. He also held ‘classes’ in Zoom rooms where students could actively participate in the discussion or just listen to the inputs of their peers.

Technically, Yamaguchi appears to have thoroughly enjoyed modifying his teaching practice to make room for the ‘all-digital’ format:

He used overhead cameras to capture imagery of his demonstrations and added more explicit detail to his narration. (Overhead cameras can’t capture dimension, apparently, so Yamaguchi added those minute details orally as he went along.)

And he replaced his whiteboard with his iPad. The iPad, apparently, plugs into Zoom and provides a similar appearance as that tool while also conveniently converting the project to a shareable PDF. Who knew?

Like his other PCC colleagues, he, too, opened a ‘Canvas-Pages’ site where his students could upload their work, see what their peers were doing, and engage in chats and conversations outside the formal ‘classroom’ setting.


From his student’s perspective, the semester was a very successful one.

They really enjoyed being at the ‘front’ of the class since the online program doesn’t line them out in rows. Instead, it switches screens, so it highlights the speakers.

The online discussion boards, chat rooms, and other digital resources kept them connected to each other and their teacher, regardless of their location or even the time of day.

And they appreciated the normalcy of ‘attending school’ even while they were stuck at home.

As learners, they probably weren’t as aware of the ‘teachable moment’ offered by the COVID-19-induced transition to remote learning. However, they certainly benefitted from having an instructor so well versed in changes and pivots, who helped them normalize that skill as well.


Pivoting toward Progress

Yamaguchi says that the overall ‘in-class to online transition’ experience was a good one for him because it made him rethink his approach to both teaching and product design, and because the ‘rethinking‘ process itself is an invaluable tool for future design projects and classes. He will use these newly discovered insights and the digital skills that grew from them to inform his teaching endeavors to give his future students that design-forward skill, too.

He also sees that the transitioning adventure was a positive one for his students. Yamaguchi notes that the Industrial Design field was already in flux before the pandemic, as 3D printing, Computer-Aided Drafting (CAD), AI, machine learning, and other technological innovations compelled changes in how products are designed and used. Further, remote teams – and the technical tools they use – are becoming more common as companies add diverse talents from across time zones and locations. Those innovations are continuous, and his current and future students will need to pivot to address all the innovations they bring.

Yamaguchi believes that working through the COVID-induced transition to remote learning has helped his students understand that a successful design process is rarely linear and that the COVID-curveball they faced won’t be the only such obstacle in their future. He is gratified that they embraced the pivot as the ‘project’ that it was, just as he as their teacher did, and he hopes they maintain that pivoting talent as they move forward into whatever future lies ahead of them.





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