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.”

 

Real World Learning: Design Challenges

For the past two years I’ve worked with the Parkway West Career and Technology Center (PWCTC) Consortium of Schools and the Energy Innovation Center (EIC) to develop a series of real world Design Challenges. There are some lessons I’ve learned:

  • Identify the students teams as consultants. Make the students aware of the role of a consultant and the importance of addressing the needs of the client. Work with the teacher facilitators to frame the problem in ways that relate to the students and allow teams to work collaboratively.
  • Bring in experts from Day 1. We have each kick-off event at the EIC. Bob Meeder, the CEO of the EIC, arranges for a team of experts, or as he calls them “bosses,” to work with the student consulting teams.
  • Frame the challenge around a Request for Proposal (RFP). In the business world RFPs are the documents that outline the expectations of the client. The consulting team has to address the project based on the client’s needs.
  • Use a human-centered design process to move the project along. I’ve had an opportunity to undergo training through the LUMA Institute. The LUMA framework, developed through a meta-analysis of the best strategies in design thinking, helps to shape the problem more succinctly and provides the focus on the target population.

Visualizing the vote for Concept Posters

Here are some ways I’ve worked these principles into a series of Design Challenges with high school students this fall. To start the challenge the student consultants walk through the Energy Innovation Center and use a LUMA strategy called “Fly on the Wall.” They use the camera on their phones to document everything that they see. At the kick-off they develop questions they need to address based on the RFP. Experts from the business, non-profit, or other arenas, begin to answer the student questions. At the midpoint I bring the students back together. (Between the kickoff and midpoint the student teams work with their teacher facilitators conducting research into the RFP issues. Sometimes the teams get together and other times they go their separate ways.)

For this year’s two Design Challenges I used a LUMA recipe – a combination of strategies – at the midpoint session. For a Food Menu Item Design Challenge where the student consultants from South Fayette, Carlynton, and PWCTC had to come up with their best ideas for the forthcoming EIC Healthy Cafe, I needed a way to identify the best choices. Each student consultant created what LUMA calls a “Concept Poster” for their food item and then had to pitch the idea to their colleagues and a team of experts that included people in the food industries. Each consultant and expert then chose the three best ideas and put dots on the Concept Poster – LUMA’s “Visualizing the Vote.” This combination of strategies narrowed the choices, but there was an issue – could the choices work in a cafe environment in a cost-effective manner? Fortunately, I had a team of student experts who were studying Culinary Arts and their teacher, a chef from the Parkway West Career and Technology Center. The chef with the student consultants then examined the top choices that would be prototyped in the PWCTC kitchens.

Concept Poster to pitch ideas

The second Design Challenge focused on the renovation of an existing space – Innovation Hall- at the EIC. The student consultant teams from Keystone Oaks and Chartiers Valley worked in four teams – lighting technologies, smart technologies, surface technologies, and furnishings. At the midpoint each team developed a “Concept Poster” and then each consultant and expert working on the project responded by placing a red note for a Great Idea, a green note for a promising idea that needed some further thinking, or a brown note for an idea that might not work. LUMA calls this strategy “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” Once the teams received the feedback from the other teams and experts, they had to revise their plan.

In both Design Challenges the LUMA strategies provided great ways to get all students involved in a collaborative manner. The consulting teams had to use communication skills that included visualizing ideas. The teams had to analyze feedback and revise (iterate) their ideas.

We’re not done yet. The final presentations will take place in the next month, but one of the Design Challenges from last year will soon have a ribbon-cutting ceremony.  What’s better than having the student consultants actually see their ideas implemented?

Sharing a prototype

Last year three teams of students worked on the installation of a windmill at the EIC. Consultants from Carlynton High School came up with a very original model using a Hummingbird Kit from Birdbrain Technologies. A second team from PWCTC’s Electrical Studies program devised a storage and power strategy for the RFP, while the third team from West Allegheny developed an educational strategy to instruct visitors at the EIC about wind energy and sustainable energies. In December members from the original Design Team will join Windstax Technologies, key members of the EIC, the mayor of Pittsburgh, and the County Executive of Allegheny County in a ribbon cutting ceremony – a great real world celebration for a challenging real world problem.

Studio A

What happens when you add  a variety of artists to Project-based Learning with a Design Thinking approach? The result it Studio A. That’s what the Avonworth School District has created for the past two years as part of a summer workshop for educators sponsored by the Grable Foundation. Educators from the Pittsburgh area (and beyond) gather together with Avonworth teachers and students to engage in a series of activities led by experts in Human Centered Design from the LUMA Institute and artists that are part of the Artist Residency program at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.

I’ve been fortunate to have joined the activities for both this year and last year. There are few summer programs that not only stimulate educators to rethink how they work with learners, but also provide fun and engaging activities. As adults we forget how important it is to “play.” You need to use your body as well as your mind to express ideas. The Avonworth workshops used the theme of “Civic Engagement” this year. Each artist and LUMA expert developed a lesson around the Civic Engagement theme. Alison Zapata, a visual artist, provided a hands-on session where we learned how to use basic elements of art to create a design for a poster that communicated a civic message. In my case it was about how trees reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Other artists tackled the Civic Engagement theme by using dramatic ensembles to build communities that understand acceptance and kindness or by writing poetry through the lens of another “persona.” In every arts situation we were learning how to work with other people and to look at how our group ideas could solve a common problem.

The LUMA team walked us through a series of scenarios that used the LUMA strategies against the backdrop of Project-based Learning. For instance: how do you get input from students around a Driving Question? As a group we examined a “Concept Poster” that represented student responses to a Driving Question. Our challenge was to give well-rounded feedback using a strategy named “Rose, Thorn, Bud.” In this strategy, each person writes positive comments on pink Post-it notes (Roses), problematic issues on blue Post-it notes (Thorns), and potential improvements on green Post-it notes (Buds).

For two days we worked with the LUMA team and the artists. Then on the final morning we were able to work on our own problems. Artists and LUMA experts were available for private conversations. People with similar interests, elementary teachers, for example, met with elementary students to understand how the process works (or doesn’t work) from their perspective. Teams from schools that wanted to develop their own approach had the opportunity to have their own gathering.

What will I take from the Studio A experience? I’ll continue to refine the Design Challenges that I coordinate for the Energy Innovation Center for Parkway Consortium schools. I’ve already created a new schematic that will add one or two new LUMA strategies that I’ve found on the new LUMA Workplace website. I also plan to incorporate a warmup activity adapted from one of the improvisational art sessions. For the evaluation of the Design Challenges I’ll add a LUMA activity based on “Statement Starters” to gather data about the experience.