We started February 9th in a small room off the East Palo Alto Phoenix Academy (EPAPA) cafeteria. EPAPA deeply supports and cares for its students, making the culture feel more like a family than a school. We spent the day with a powerful team of five EPAPA educators, ranging from the Lead Education Specialist who works closely with the special education students to the school’s college counselor to the science teacher. People with different backgrounds designing together is the essence of radical collaboration and good design.
We kicked off with an exercise on team building, listening, and working with unanticipated constraints that often surface in education and force us to change our approach to solving problems. The K12 Lab Network and EPAPA teachers formed two teams to build a contraption that would let a ball roll down to the ground as slowly as possible. Teams grabbed materials in closets, bins, and more. With only three minutes of build time remaining, a new rule was added. The ball had to reach the ground in as close to 30 seconds as possible. All bets were off: team EPAPA took yogurt and smeared it on their ramp with granola to create texture to slow the ball down, while the K12 Lab Network team used paper and tape to create friction. And EPAPA took first! Ingenuity at its finest.
After the team warmed up, we centered around our challenge for the day: supporting students to and through their best possible transition out of high school. Aspire Public Schools require admittance to a 4-year school in order to earn a HS diploma. And for many students, this challenge is well suited. However, this requirement also poses significant challenges to students who are not.
To frame the day, we heard from Emily Morgan, aforementioned Education Specialist, who has worked tirelessly digging into this challenge, and Katie Noble, who happened to have done her thesis work on the effects of the transition out of high school for students coming from highly supportive high school environments. After we heard their perspectives, stories, and data based on many ethnographic interviews Katie had done, we also heard from three students directly. In design thinking, we often talk about learning from extreme users (people who have needs and behaviors that lay outside the norm), and these students did represent extremes, ranging from one who is applying to UPenn to a 2nd year senior, taking care of his family, who has a curiosity for medicine but is questioning his next step. We heard the students’ stories and asked questions as a group to dig deeper. We could have spent hours sharing stories and asking questions. There was no shortage of empathy for the students in the room.
We entered into the “define” phase of the design process and began to process what we heard. Teams captured student stories on poster paper and we used the information on the posters to come up with questions we could brainstorm around. Both teams drilled deeper into the concept of failure with their statements, and that explicitly referring to failure as a process could be a powerful shift for students.
Over lunch we read the article, Helping the Poor in Education: The Power of a Simple Nudge. Using this article as inspiration, ideas took the form of quick, cheap, prototypes like daily text messages to students or new grading routines for quizzes. When teams got stuck, we used prompts such as, “What could your idea look like if it cost $7? If it launched this Friday? If it was one meeting?” to get them going again. After building, teams tested their prototypes. The educators pulled students from the halls and immersed them in a these new experiences to get feedback.
The EPAPA educators created an action plan. They chose an accountability buddy in the group, crafted a three minute experiment they could try in the coming week to test their idea, a three month goal, and a three year vision that they then shared with their accountability buddies. They also listed who else they could speak with or where they could go to observe different perspectives and gather more information on the challenge and test their solutions.