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.”

 

Catalytic Innovation

Digital Technology is seldom a stand-alone solution. It’s often a resource and if done well, a catalyst for learning. Most of my work revolves around projects and products from the Pittsburgh area, including K-12 outreach activities from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU). For twelve years I served an an adjunct professor in the Heinz College at CMU. I tried to find ways to connect K-12 educators to learning innovations from CMU. That was the before the CREATE Lab happened. Today at CMU the CREATE Lab, the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC), and the LearnLab all provide opportunities for K-12 educators to discover new and innovative strategies, processes, and products to use in the learning environment.

On July 23-25, 2018 Birdbrain Technologies, a spin-off from the CREATE Lab, will host a new conference – Catalyze Learning Summer Institute: Integrating Robotics With Your Curriculum. Registration will open in mid-February.  Birdbrain Technologies is now impacting learners in over 40 countries. The conference intends to bring to Pittsburgh some of the best practitioners and practices found at global sites such as Hong Kong, Korea, Cyprus, or Dubai, as well as the United States.

Key to the Birdbrain/CREATE Lab model is the focus on computational thinking and an engineering design process. The CREATE Lab calls this approach, Digital Fluency. At the conference users will have a chance not only to hear about success stories, but more importantly to experience them first-hand. Participants will have the opportunity to choose from beginner to advanced tracks in making and programming. There will be workshops on using Hummingbird Robotics Kits and Finch robots with tablets and computers for both block-based and text-based languages. Birdbrain will also provide some sneak peaks at what is in currently in development.

The conference aims to create a network of users who will share their ideas at the conference and then implement their discoveries back their own sites. The conference will provide users an opportunity to immerse themselves in robotics across the curriculum and give them time to plan for their 2018-2019 school year. Catalyze Learning will be a practical, hands-on, and immersive experience that impacts not just academic learning, but changes the social landscape for learning.

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.