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Back-to-School Products Designed by Students for Students

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate
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photo of a student examining a science project

Projects that put students in the role of designer or engineer are gaining in popularity as teachers look for opportunities to build students' problem-solving and collaboration skills. But how often do students get to see the products they imagine go all the way through the design and manufacturing process and land on retail shelves?

When middle school students from Brooklyn, NY, and Atlanta, GA, go back-to-school shopping this year, they can spot products that they had a hand in designing. In an unusual collaboration between education and industry, students and professional designers teamed up to create a line of products designed by students, for students.

"This took my students all the way to the finish line," says Ailene Altman Mitchell, principal of Middle School 88 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Along the way, she adds, students tapped creativity, problem-solving, and collaboration skills while applying academics to a real-world challenge. "This is depth of knowledge. It's soft skills. It's what career readiness looks like, starting in middle school." What's more, Mitchell says the partnership with outside experts sent a powerful message to her students: "Your ideas have impact."

Creating Better Problem Solvers

The first rollout of the Designed by Students education initiative, sponsored by Staples, involved students from the Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, along with middle school students from MS 88. Professional designers from a nonprofit organization called Tools at Schools facilitated the learning experience so that both students and teachers got familiar with the same design-thinking process that the pros use.

Tools at Schools co-founders include Don Buckley, who has a multifaceted background in education, technology, and design and teaches graduate courses at Columbia Teacher's College, and Renat Aruh of Aruliden, a product design and strategy firm based in New York. In previous projects at Columbia, they have worked with K-12 students to reimagine such school basics as the desk, locker, and chair.

Introducing students to design thinking also tends to spark teacher interest in the process. "Design thinking can seem nebulous and messy at first," says Buckley, "but when teachers see something [good] happening with kids, that frontloads it. Kids have the power to effect change." (Watch the Staples Design Challenge in action at MS 88.)

"We're not looking to create future designers, necessarily," adds Aruh. "We want to help students solve problems creatively. That's a huge void [in education]," she adds. When she interviews recent college graduates, for example, she often finds a missing skill set. "Where's the class that teaches you to solve for problems, and then be able to present an idea and narrate it in a way that people really understand it?" A goal of Tools at Schools, she adds, "is to be able to influence and support teachers who are looking for different ways to engage children and give them unique skills that can set them up for success."

"How Do You Solve for Boring?"

To launch the back-to-school project, Aruh and Buckley presented students with a design brief that outlined the challenge and constraints. Then, over the course of several weeks, they guided students and teachers through the process of identifying problems, framing opportunities, and generating "big ideas" to solve them.

Throughout the process, the experts revisited classes at key times to offer feedback and help students overcome setbacks or bottlenecks. "We used that time together to ask questions, to allow students to really talk through their ideas. We were there to offer support and help them figure it out -- not to give answers," says Aruh.

For example, a common problem that students identified was, "School stuff is boring." Aruh challenged students to consider, "How do you solve for boring? What's going to make this exciting? Is it about materials? What choices can we make that will change the conversation so it's no longer about boring?"

To scaffold the design-thinking process, the Tools at Schools team has students produce three boards en route to their proposed solution. Here's how Aruh describes these deliverables:

Board One: What inspires you? You might pull pictures from magazines, use color swatches, or words -- whatever gets you excited about the topic. It's the beginning of a synthesized visualization of the subject matter.

Board Two: What are the problems and solutions? What are the common issues users face? This likely requires research (and problems typically outnumber solutions). What are your top three? This board helps you determine, "What are you really trying to solve for?"

Board Three: What's your pitch for a potential solution? Why is it worth considering? How well can you articulate that? Your pitch goes on the "big idea" board.

"A lot happens in between [the boards]," adds Aruh, but getting to each stage "is a big achievement." She has noticed teachers continuing to use the three-board scaffold for other learning experiences, long after the design challenge ends.

What Students Know Best

Although this project was long on learning objectives for students, there were also outcomes for the expert partners. "Students are the core users of these [school] products. They had insights based on their experiences," says Aruh, and that led to new commercial products. For example, students pointed out that "homework" seldom happens at home. It might get done on the way to a sports event, at a coffeehouse with wifi, or on a bus ride home. The student-designed solution: a portable, foldable "desk" that sits on the user's lap.

Once students pitched their prototypes to experts, products went through further refinement on their way to market. "We took their low-res prototypes and mocked-up high-fidelity designs, which we presented back to students," explains Buckley. What students gained from that process, he adds, "is validation for their ideas from someone other than their teacher. They see how their ideas are part of the final product." After that, Tools at Schools handed the designs off to Staples. "They took it from there to move into manufacturing and marketing. For students, that meant realization of their ideas."

Buckley says schools are "notorious for bringing projects to a certain point, but then they're forgotten or thrown away." To get ideas all the way to "the finish line," as Principal Mitchell puts it, requires a willingness to partner. "Schools can't do it all by themselves," says Buckley.

How Leaders Set the Stage

Innovative projects like this one are deliberately disruptive. They may not fit neatly into content areas or class schedules. That makes leadership buy-in essential, according to the Tools at Schools team. "Success depends on a visionary leader," says Buckley, "who sees the value of real-world learning."

From Mitchell's point of view, this project fit perfectly with the direction and philosophy of MS 88. The high-poverty school, a turnaround success story, is strategic about incorporating project-based learning, teacher collaboration, interdisciplinary thinking, flipped classroom, and other approaches that help students learn. "We don't run a circus," adds Mitchell. "Whatever we do is intentional, deliberate, and aligned with the work we're doing." Convinced that this project offered big benefits, she recruited teachers who wanted to take on a new challenge and then empowered them to take it forward.

Although this project has ended, Mitchell is already looking for opportunities to have her students continue to use their design thinking skills. "When I come across problems as a principal, I'm going to challenge and inspire students to come up with solutions. We can't just teach them the skills. We have to give them real opportunities to use them." Learn more about partnering with Tools at Schools on future design challenges.

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