Students as Designers

In the last five years there’s been a flood of attention around Design Thinking and Student Learning. Through my work with the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) and the Parkway Way Consortium of Schools near Pittsburgh I’ve had a chance to work with over 200 high school students around a series of Design Challenges. In addition, schools, like Nazareth Prep, have challenged their students to solve problems in their own community. In this article I’ll highlight some outstanding recent examples for each of these projects.

Energy Innovation Center Design Challenges

During the spring of 2018 students from Moon, Montour, Quaker Valley, West Allegheny, and the Parkway West Career and Technology Center (PWCTC) worked on two different Design Challenges. The student consultant teams from Moon and Montour joined with a team from PWCTC to examine the needs for additional LEED projects at the EIC in Pittsburgh. The teams from West Allegheny and Quaker Valley combined with digital arts students from PWCTC to delve into “Rebranding Careers.” Key to all of the activities were a series of activities that tapped into strategies that are part of the LUMA approach to Human Centered Design. For instance, students developed “concept posters” and “visualized” their evaluation of ideas. For both projects students had to develop an understanding for the needs of the client, the EIC. From the kick-off at the EIC, through a final presentation at PWCTC, students engaged in conversation with experts who provided feedback and guidance.

For the LEED Design Challenge the student consulting team at Montour created a prototype at their high school to test out an idea for a Green Wall with an aquaponics component for the EIC. The Moon team through their research realized that the recycling program at the EIC had a narrow focus. The student consultants made recommendations for a series of improvements so all materials used at the EIC could be recycled. The construction students from PWCTC built a model for a reflective light solution that would use mirrors to bring more natural light into the EIC.

The Rebranding Careers Design Challenge asked the student consultants to look at the language and images used to portray the opportunities in the trade and technical fields. The student consultants investigated new directions not only in the United States, but in Australia and Germany. The student consultants developed three pathways to educate their peers and their parents:

  • An app that would provide a personalized approach to career and college directions;
  • A BBQ career event that would use food to share the possibilities for a technical career;
  • A commercial that would use a feminine perspective to break down some of the traditional barriers in the technical world.

Many design activities are hypothetical, but each of the Design Challenges in this series were based on real world problems at the EIC. As one of the students pointed out, “I enjoyed knowing that the EIC will try to actually implement our ideas.”

Nazareth Prep Students Design Little Free Pantry for Aliquippa

One day in early July, four high school students from Nazareth Prep were admiring the fruits of their labor: a new Little Free Pantry ready to be installed outside of Uncommon Grounds Café in Aliquippa. Participants in the school’s Element summer program, these students had designed, built and created technological features for the pantry box, where members of the community can donate or retrieve food.
Made possible through a grant from the Adele & Thomas Keaney Charitable Foundation through the PNC Charitable Trusts Grant Review Committee, Nazareth Prep’s three-week Element summer program provided participants with intensive, hands-on instruction in design, woodworking and programming. The course was led by three Nazareth Prep faculty members: music and computer science teacher Leslie Chabala, engineering teacher Michael Roberts and physics teacher Eric Dunkerly.
Element students worked in two teams. The Build Team designed and constructed the physical elements of the pantry box using a variety of tools in Nazareth Prep’s Social Action Innovation Laboratory (SAIL), an MIT-approved fabrication facility. Meanwhile, the Code Team used miniature Raspberry Pi computers, Twitter bots and magnetic switches to set up a system for remotely monitoring pantry stock. The mini computers are programmed to take pictures of the pantry’s contents and upload them to Twitter when the sensors detect that the pantry has been used; community members can check the pantry’s Twitter feed to find out whether it has what they need or needs to be refilled.
Code Team student Katie Donohue reflects, “The best part of my experience was being able to watch my code take and upload pictures on its own – seeing how, through trial and error, I was able to power through and build something great.” Her teammate Cody Staudt comments, “I improved my knowledge of the Python [programming] language a lot.”
The students’ project is a high-tech approach to the Little Free Pantry model, which allows community members to share food with each other, whether they have extra items that need to be used or are running low on necessary supplies. The pantries are meant as a grassroots safety net to fill in the gaps that may be left by traditional food shelves and other resources.
Nazareth Prep’s Little Free Pantry is located outside of Uncommon Grounds Cafe, owned by parents of a Nazareth Prep student. The café runs a variety of ministries in the town of Aliquippa, where residents regularly make use of a number of previously installed Little Free Pantries. As the Nazareth Prep students wrapped up their pantry project, 11th grader Myeir Northern, who hails from Manchester, broke into a smile, exclaiming, “We really built a free pantry!” Then he started considering how he could put one in his own neighborhood.
Says instructor Chabala, “It was so great watching students be in charge of their own learning, driven by the clear goal of what the Little Free Pantry needed to do to work for the community. Students needed less and less direction and assistance as the camp went on, and by the end they were comfortable researching and creating on their own.”

 

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