As part of my Winona State University cohort, we all engaged in a condensed experience in Design Thinking, a process that facilitates user-centered design. Back at Olin, Design Thinking was the heart of the engineering curriculum, pulling together our technical work with entrepreneurship and the humanities in a process that puts people at the core, so this was not a new experience. However, it was the first time I used Stanford-based materials, the first time I did a design project alone, and the first time I went through a formal application of design since I started teaching.
To focus my design work, I decided not to look at all of my students. Instead, the problem I wanted to better understand was why my Grand Challenge Design course was so male-dominated (20 young men, 3 young women), so I studied current 10th and 11th-grade female students, the ones who could register for GC Design starting in January. I did not enter with an expected outcome, but rather let the process reveal insights as they came up. The point was to truly understand and empathize with this group that I was clearly having a hard time appealing to. Starting with this understanding, I could improve the design of the course and more effectively communicate what was already good to these students.
Students are only one of many stakeholders in public education. The federal, state, and local governments all have an important stake, as to community members, parents, administrators, teachers, and support staff. However, given that students are the end customers, it is amazing how little we seek to understand them. An empathy-centered process stops asking what students want (more time to do their existing work, better resources, etc.) and observes what students do, say, and think. From there, I made inferences and connected the commonalities to create a picture of who these students are. One of the more powerful insights I gained from this process is that the students I interviewed were open to creating and the engineering process. Food and art were common places to make and invent. However, content and peer groups mattered. Nearly all of the young women I talked to had clear passions and career interests that developed in middle school, directing their decisions on courses and extra-curricular activities. They were also aware of which courses were likely to be mostly guys, and most of them avoided these. A surprising theme was the belief that they would fall behind in a technical course. This is especially curious because the majority of them said that they did well in their 8th grade STEM course and never fell behind (where is this belief coming from?!).
After this research, I designed my first prototype solution: a two-hour course called "LED Art" on our school's exploratory lesson day (twice per year). I described it as a chance to design your own art project on foam board and bring it to life with custom-programmed LED lights. The description worked! I recruited a class of 13 gals and 12 guys. Though I was working with a lighter supply of materials than I was hoping for, I had enough to run the class. On game day, it was a total disaster. Students managed to mostly have fun and learn a thing or two, but the logistics of helping everyone get a basic circuit running proved just a hair too much for only two hours with my planning. After running the course, I have a few dozen specific changes that I plan to make that will allow everyone to be up and running significantly faster, allowing more time for explorations, programming, and actual art design.
The most fascinating observation of the whole course was what happened when I asked students if they wanted to buy a $10 kit of parts to take home: 8/12 guys signed up, 1/13 of the ladies did. While working, there were only a few people that appeared to know what they were doing, and yet the guys were the ones who seemed either confident enough or interested enough to want to take it home and keep learning. I'm curious is this is an inherent fact about this group, or if there would be different results on taking a kit home if I provided more structured handouts and guides from the start. I wonder if the outcome would have changed if I took the time to learn more names during the session and encouraged each person as they worked.
In the end, the whole experience was incredibly worthwhile. More than any specific insights, of which there were many, I am fully re-convinced that the Design Thinking process needs to guide any important decisions that I am making. I can guess what students want or need based on my past experience, and I can read a lot of relevant research that gives me insight, but direct, targeted observation and iterative design with student feedback leads to solutions that really nail the important details. Beyond my role as a teacher, if I want to be an innovative instructional leader in my school, I need to be able to facilitate a team working through this process together. With a partner or team, the process involves a lot of discussion and skimming of insights at every stage of engaging with users. By leading the design process, I can expand the number of people who are empathizing effectively with students at our school and be directly supported in improving the design work I do for my own classroom.