Design Program Launch

Today was the Design Thinking program’s launch day. It was our first big event. I’ve taught classes and run short programs, but this was the first time we’ve had a celebrity judge — an architect and member of our board — a number of parents in attendance, and all the middle school grades represented.

Our problem or challenge was this — how can the school reduce its energy costs and electrical costs?. We had three teams, ranging from a three person team hastily assembled, to a sixth grade team that had been planning and communicating (can I say scheming? I think so) all week despite the power outages.

We started a little late, shortly after 1pm today. I presented the nature of design challenges very frankly. “welcome to the design challenge. Why design? Because you have to invent a solution. Why challenge? Because none of the adults in this room can tell you how to solve this problem — we don’t know either.”

I think there was a little frisson of excitement and concern at that. Maybe concern. Maybe confusion — when do teachers admit they don’t know? Rarely. When do we let children work on real-world problems with no correct answers? Only in Ender’s Game.

At periodic intervals, I stopped the teams and asked them to think about one of the stages of the design process. Some of the steps in design process are short. If you’ve done your homework, they take ten minutes or less. Others can take forty minutes or more. And as designers know, sometimes the individual steps and sub-steps can take years or more.

My main goal was to make sure that students got a chance to go through the whole process, beginning to end, in three hours. They succeeded in that. And all of the kids seemed to “get” why we adults think this is so important. All the kids claimed, in the moment, that they wanted to do this again.

But what really got me was seeing how many parents came to the wrap up and how many of them left getting the idea of design as a tool for the future. Several parents said it explicitly: “I love watching my kid solve our most serious problems the way I do at work. I wish we did this at work more often than we do.”

Several of my colleagues left the event looking more bought in, too. It’s not that they didn’t believe it before, but maybe they didn’t believe I could do it. I think I’m over that hurdle, at least.

Theres no food at home, so I’m eating in a restaurant tonight. This kid at a nearby table is angsting about an iPhone app that doesn’t work the way it should. She wants it changed. That shows that kids are hungry for this, here and everywhere. I think design will work for my school now. I’m no longer worried that we can make this work at some point in the future.  Rather, I’m excited that we HAVE made it work, and can continue to make it work going forward.

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