A Week of Civic Engagement

Over the past week I had the pleasure of working with a group of students in the Boston Winterim group for Brimmer and May. The week was built to be an exercise in Design Thinking while looking at a way to make a social impact on our community. Students want through a process of identifying an social issue to focus on for the week and eventually chose to look at environmental issues facing our local community.

With the uncertainty that a Design Thinking process can take a team, it wasn’t clear where we would end up. However in the end, it became a deep lesson in environmental issues, civics, local and state politics, and moved past the traditional lens of community service.

To learn more about the impressive week of work(that will continue outside of this week), visit the Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods Improvements site that was setup to record the work.

Leveraging Design Thinking in Schools

If you step into my office, you will see pads of sticky notes sitting on different surfaces and easel pad paper filled with used stickies. I was not always sticky note obsessed. The truth is that I resisted using them for a long time. So what happened? I was introduced to Design Thinking (or Human Centered Design). I became hooked on the way in which the process, when done right, took an empathetic lens to design and focused on developing solutions from a broad user base. Most fascinating is the way in which it identified unique solutions that generally were not easily predictable.

During the process, the team of “designers” collect information from users and learn about their experience. They work to understand how the purpose is interacting with the people that are using it. It is easy to extrapolate how it can be used in areas of STEAM, particularly arts and engineering. It pulls from those processes. While it originated out of IDEO’s product design work, it was adapted over the past two decades to improve patient care systems in hospitals, improve a person’s experience while waiting in line, and enhance social entrepreneurship. The implementation of design thinking has grown exponentially as Stanford’s d.school has made the work more mainstream.

The question remained for me, how can design thinking be leveraged to improve programs and decision making in schools? When I watched David Kelley’s 60 Minutes special, it became clear to me. The process places the human at the center, which is ultimately the goal of education organizations.

Here are the basic principles:

  1. Empathize: During this initial phase the team is design-thinking-2collecting information from various
    groups and individuals that may interact with issue. The goal is to connect with the people that may be impacted and understand the issues from their perspective.
  2. Define: In this second part of the process the team works to define a problem statement that sums up what they learned during the empathy phase. This may shift over time as ideas are created and tested, and more information is collected.
  3. Ideate: Similar to brainstorming, the goal is to develop as many ideas as possible without limit. The end result should be lots of ideas that can be grouped and refined.
  4. Prototyping: The goal at this point is to quickly develop one of the ideas in more detail- create a model, sketch out how it will work, put together something that can be tested as a rough outline.
  5. Test: When you get to the “test” phase you are not done. You are looking to collect information and learn about your prototype. How can it be improved? Do you need to incorporate other ideas? Do you need to start over with the new information you collected.

The power of the process is how it can be utilized in school decision making. It provides the context and process to involve the important stakeholders in the school, helps to bring out new ideas, and creates a culture of innovation. However the process itself does not work unless the right team is assembled. It is critical to include a cross-section of the community- this must happen to get the most out of the ideate phase.

In the end the process is key. Many organizations have a difficult time balancing when to make a decision versus when to continue with the process. The human centered design process is most helpful in finding the right balance. The process allows schools to take a thoughtful approach to decision making and program development, while also working towards a final solution. The process has a way of identifying the underlying issues that are at play and developing a solution- keeping schools out of the extremes of rushing to a decision or getting stuck in process or unpacking.