Lifelong Learning: A Summer Search Design Challenge

Jump in and throw something wild out there; no suggestion too extreme!” I was told. My group was apparently being far too logical, rational, and moderate in our solutions. Once we heard prompts  like “Every program must cost at least a million dollars…. Or take place in outer space…. Or involve celebrities…” we loosened up a little and the ideas started flowing.

imgresI had the great privilege of participating in a design challenge last Saturday morning. Yes, Saturday morning. An organization called Summer Search was looking for some new ways to organize the second summer of their highly successful program for low income youth. An “innovation team” on their board pulled together 35 people — board members, staff members, current and former Summer Search students, and educators like myself — who agreed to spend four hours engaged in a design process to help them enhance their vision and think about potential new programming.

We spent our time going through a mini version of a typical design process, led by a skilled facilitator who kept us focused and on task, gave us just enough information at each stage to make decisions, and encouraged us to be creative and think big. We started with exercises designed to help us understand the student experience and develop empathy. Current and former students demonstrated their challenges and successes while we asked questions and prompted them to add detail. Each team of three had the chance to learn from three different students before we gathered all the information we had and attempted to define the issues facing Summer Search in this process.

Design-Thinking-670-x-443The next step set teams of four to brainstorm solutions and this is where we were encouraged to think big. Once we had all of our crazy and not so crazy ideas (“Sail around the world!” “Make a movie!” “Build a house!” “Intern at a business”) in sticky notes on the wall, we each chose the one we liked the best and developed it further so we could present it to the Summer Search innovation team for further review. They plan on taking the design challenge to the next levels of iteration, prototyping and testing; our work was done after the brainstorm and initial idea creation.

It was so much fun! I’m not sure when four hours have flown by so fast. I love the way the time was scripted and yet allowed for a lot of fertile creative thought. A small group of people working very hard on something they care about, contributing real ideas to an organization they care about, was incredibly engaging and thought-provoking. Design thinking is a tool I have heard so much about and even participated in a couple of times, but this took it to a new level for me. I am reminded of how much fun it is to learn something new with other people, and even better when what I learned for me actually will be useful to someone else. As educators, we often espouse lifelong learning as a goal; rarely have I experienced it in such a profound and enjoyable way.

The Design Thinking Process

The Design Thinking Process

Design Thinking and Collaboration

This fall, my Program Development Associate Kaitlin Fisher and I took the opportunity to participate in a class called Human Centered Design. It was run by a non-profit called Acumen and grew out of Stanford University’s IDEO project. I learned about the course through my association with the coworking community I joined a year ago, Impact Hub Seattle.

Impact Hub Seattle

Impact Hub Seattle

The Hub is part of a worldwide network of co-working spaces for people creating impact in their local and global communities. It was started in Amsterdam and growing rapidly – there are currently 63 Impact Hub locations open around the world and 20+ in the process of opening. By joining, people like me who work for themselves can meet others, access a listserv full of opportunities, participate in weekly member lunches, and attend panel discussions along with any number of other interesting events. Members choose from a number of membership options, from two days a month to full time, with a couple of options in between. While there are many kinds of co-working spaces (such as WeWork and The Collaborative Space Alliance), the Impact Hub sets itself apart with its focus on community. Besides the coffee, tea, and snacks that come with membership, we get fun professional development invitations such as a recent one to join a design thinking team.


The ideation phase

Design thinking is something I have been aware of for some time, along with many people in education, as illustrated in this U.S. map of K12 schools using the concept in their curriculum. It grew out of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (known as the, where they realized that the principles of design in fields like business and architecture could also be applied to make successful contributions to human-centered problems. Acumen has offered the course free of charge every couple of months since 2013 (sidenote: it’s not too late, the next course begins February 9th). The coursework happens online, and groups must meet in person once a week to work on their design challenges. Although I was familiar with design thinking, I decided to take the course to become more familiar with the process and potentially use it in my work. We ended up with two Hub teams of five people each working over a 2 month period, and at the end we unanimously agreed it was a very worthwhile experience.

Sticky notes: imperative to the human-centered design process

Sticky notes: imperative to the human-centered design process

Our group consisted of three people working in global education, one in global microfinance, one in organizational consulting, and one in public relations. After doing some ice breakers and self-reflection, naming our group and creating our online presence, we selected one of three design challenges offered. Our group chose to tackle the question “How might we provide healthier food options to people in need?” Each week we completed class readings, watched videos, followed a study guide, and met in person for two hours to move through the three stages of the project: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. We had the opportunity to upload our assignments, see what the other 15,000+ people taking the course all over the globe (including several other groups in Seattle) were doing, join chat rooms, and learn from a variety of methods.

 After choosing our challenge, we spent some time researching the issue, interviewing consumers, and immersing ourselves in locations where people might need healthier food options or in organizations working on providing them. Our exploration included food banks, a middle school class working on an urban farm, and a grocery store. Ultimately we were moved by the suggestion that healthy food needs to be more “fun,” so we chose a 14 year old boy as our target audience and resolved to create an app, a game, and a contest for healthy eating that would be enjoyable to his demographic. We took our concept, the “FoodBit,” through the prototyping phase, involving celebrity endorsers in the sports and music world, and then had a great time testing it out on our family members and friends. Of course, when we finished, uploaded our prototype, and viewed others online, we realized there were many flaws in our design and it would require a good deal more work to actually bring to market. Probably not unlike the process for any other invention.

Our group with our “FoodBit” presentation

One important outcome of our participation in the course was that we learned how to use the valuable tool of design thinking in our work. Another was our increased awareness of food issues and those working to solve them. We all agreed the best part of the course was getting to know each other and working together. Online classes can be great, but having real people, in real time, counting on us was the single greatest motivating factor. Some groups who took the course clearly devoted more time to it than we did, but given other commitments in our work life, we were proud of what we accomplished, felt we learned a lot and benefitted greatly by working together.

I recommend checking out Acumen — they offer a variety of courses, many of them free — as well as Stanford’s IDEO platform and MakerSpace to get people in any field working together to solve problems that affect all of us. It’s instructive, productive, and fun!