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A different perspective on problem solving

English Class Winners: The winning team (l-r: Michael Heeren, Andrew Spratt,  Lucien Perla, Connor Salmon, Jeremie Francois) in the Design Thinking Challenge chose a mock redesign of the high school’s lower courtyard. They saw the potential of this unused space and thought it would benefit all students to have an opportunity to work outside when the weather was nice. They incorporated a division in space for teaching and studying, benches that can convert into tables, and an outdoor theatre for lectures, performances, and evening events.  Courtesy photo

By Natasha Don

For the second year in a row, Nashoba Regional High teachers Melissa Foley-Procko, Taryn Grigas, and Mary Marotta have implemented a project geared toward collaborative learning called the Design Thinking Challenge.

“Whenever I ask kids what they most remember from the year, it was always when they did something; whether they did a mock trial in their classroom, or a field trip. So those are the things I’d like to see more of,” said Marotta, who teaches Instructional Technology at the school. The Design Thinking Challenge is an ongoing effort to create that type of lasting educational experience in one of Taryn Grigas’s Business classes, and one of Melissa Foley-Procko’s English classes.

Grigas and Foley-Procko explained, “Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.”

Through this project, the teachers have taught their students to approach scenarios and challenges with a different empathy-based motivation. “Sometimes you have to do something different to empower and motivate students in their learning,” said Foley-Procko. “Learning the same skills, but in a totally different way. That’s what Design Thinking is really all about.”

In a nutshell, Design Thinking is developing solutions, strategies, and choices through a strong understanding of the people who will be affected by them. Grigas and Foley-Procko clarified that this method can be applied to approaching many diverse scenarios and problems, but in this particular instance, the students were asked to apply this newly learned process to redesign physical spaces within Nashoba High School, with priority placed on the human aspect of Design Thinking. Ultimately, the students would be judged on the success of their project.

Their prompt to the students stated: “Your challenge, specifically, will be to redesign a space within your school to improve the social, academic, and/or emotional student experiences at Nashoba Regional High School.” Groups were allowed to choose between the lobby, the cafeteria, the media center, the courtyard, or a particular classroom. Grigas and Foley-Procko break down the Design Thinking process into five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Over the course of working on their specific projects, students were taught to empathize with users for their final product through research, interviews, and observation. They then defined and created a statement of the problems in a particular space. The ideation step involved the exchange of ideas among group members in order to come to a plan agreement. Next, the groups created a visual prototype of their plans, and the presentations served as their test.

Students were given access to the MooreCo Incorporated website online space planner to digitally create their design blueprints. MooreCo is a company that produces educational and office furniture, so the kids were also able to access their catalogue for product choices.

Additionally, they were given access to the catalogue of AIS, a manufacturer of commercial office furniture that worked on a community partnership with the Nashoba Design Thinking project.

The assembled judges during the presentations, which included representatives from AIS as well as members of the school committee, Nashoba Principal Paul DiDomenico, and other students, served as the source for their feedback step. The work and participation will also be graded as part of the students’ curriculum.

In each presentation, students exhibited their efforts to understand and adapt for the user. Several presentations highlighted the reality that so much of our visual world has changed over the years along with people, but classrooms have remained virtually the same since the 1800s. The groups cited research studies as well as interviews they conducted and surveys they distributed that helped them reach decisions on the colors and materials of their designs.

For instance, one group referenced a study that found the color blue promotes creativity and focus, therefore they chose to repaint their classroom blue. Another group tasked with redesigning the cafeteria chose to replace the standard bench and chair seating with couches because a study they researched found that softer furniture encourages quietness, and people in a quiet environment are more likely to make healthy eating choices.

Other presentations put an emphasis on the opinions of the students, teachers, and parents of Nashoba who would ultimately be affected by these design changes. One group even added massage chairs to their Teacher’s Lounge design because that was a common request that resulted from their teacher interviews. This particular presentation highlighted the creative, and limitless perspective the English class groups were guided to adapt for their projects.

“Our goal was mostly to get creative with it, and to really start thinking about how to use the Design Method in life. Our projects were geared more toward what we do in English, so it wasn’t so much about how to best present the projects as it was about getting us to start thinking and being more creative,” said student Alyssa DeLuco. This was her first year participating in this project, and she expressed her gratitude for being exposed to Design Thinking. “I think this will give me an idea how to tackle problems from the ground up now. I feel like I can completely change the way I approach something and build something new.”

While the English class groups were instructed to work within an optimal hypothetical setting, the Business students were taught to envision their designs in a more realistic setting in order to apply their business lessons. Business teacher Taryn Grigas said, “What I love about this project is that it’s a capstone too, so to speak, in terms of everything we’ve learned all year including presentation skills. I encouraged them to bring their A games to their presentations. That was the big thing from the business perspective.”

Business class winners: The winning team selected a classroom they felt needed a face lift for a more comfortable learning environment.  This design included flexible seating to promote active learning, space for presenting, as well as key tools to integrate technology.
Pictured (r-l): Coby Anderson, Maddie King, Noah Keirouz, Sam London and Will O’Shea 

Business student and second year project participant Noah Keirouz elaborated on his class’s experience with the project. “Ours was centered more around the business aspect of it, so we formed a business pitch and a business presentation. We included budgets and we had a business professional dress code.” Of his own experience learning and applying Design Thinking, Keirouz said, “It really can be applied almost anywhere. At its base, it can be used in almost any problem solving.”

As for the future of the Design Thinking Challenge, Grigas, Foley-Procko, and Marotta have plans to launch the project again next year, with the goal of inspiring others to follow suit. “I’m hoping that it will spread and other teachers will become interested and this will be something they’re doing in more than just one or two classes,” said Foley-Procko. “Because yes, it is our job to teach them certain skills, but I also feel that it’s our job to prepare them for the real world. And what do employers want? They want someone who can work collaboratively, who can think critically and problem-solve; who can step outside the box and confront a problem with the ability to work a way around it.”