Building Space for Innovation

In 2011 President Barak Obama issued a challenge to the nation in his State of the Union Address to train and hire one hundred thousand new Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) teachers. Over the next five years President Obama continued to usher in this generation’s Sputnik Challenge. During this time there was a message that continued to develop about the needs of the nation’s workforce and the need for studentsSTEAM LAB to adapt to the demands of our modern society. Over this time the rate of change has increased exponentially forcing institutions and companies to reevaluate the skills employees need for their institutions to be successful.

Over the past few years I have had the opportunity to visit non-profits, small businesses, and Fortune 500 companies. These visits allowed me to discuss with them what they are looking for when hiring interns and employees, as well as how they are redesigning their spaces to meet the needs of collaboration and work flow. Each conversation affirmed that today’s students need to be strong problem solvers, collaborators, critical thinkers, and adaptable. In addition our spaces need to be flexible, as well as promote collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

As an educational institution Brimmer and May was identified by the National Association of Independent Schools for its progressive thinking and its leadership in developing skills that are necessary to prepare students for a 21st Century workforce. While we have been successful in creating programs in our current space to prepare students for what lies ahead, our Chase Addition is a critical next step for the school to continue developing students that are prepared for our rapidly changing world.

The new space will enable Brimmer to be an incubator of innovation and social entrepreneurship. No longer will space be an obstacle for student success. Equipped with a 3D printer, laser cutter, vinyl cutter, CNC mill, and other fabrication tools, Brimmer’s creators, innovators, developers, and makers will have the space to develop and build their ideas. It will enable classes such as Problem Solving Through Design, STEAM Lab, and Media Production to work at a more sophisticated level and for the creation of new classes such as 8th Grade Innovation Hour and the Upper School elective TechShop. However this space is not just for physical creations and developing technical skills.

Instead it is about providing more opportunities for students to further develop the essential skills identified by employers. In addition, the continued incorporation of Design Thinking into our Lower, Middle, and Upper School curriculum plays a key role. We have learned from design firms like IDEO that this way of thinking is not solely about building products. This was evident during the Boston Winterim program this past March.

Students used the design thinking process to engage in social innovation. During the weeks leading up to, week of, and weeks after Winterim students worked to make an impact on the Newton Community. They identified an issue in nearby Hammond Pond Reservation and Webster Woods and prototyped different solutions. During this process they communicated with the City of Newton, local representatives, State Legislature Representatives, and State Senators. Their work even was presented to a design firm that was retained by the Commonwealth to address issues with this area.

It is projects like the Boston Winterim program and classes which balance skill development with content mastery that will ensure that Brimmer students develop the essential skills needed to be successful in the stage of life and to be the architects of our future.

Article published in the Summer 2017 Brimmer and May Ambassador magazine

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.