Design of educational activities in a public highschool in Brooklyn
The complexity of the future of work and civic life calls for more participatory decision making processes and proactive citizen roles. Education can only keep up with this demand by nurturing new generations of individuals involved early on in co-creating and critically thinking about their educational path.
We joined Openbox, a human-centered, research and urban design, studio in NYC to work with the Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology on a project to empower high school students to play an active role in their education.
The Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology (WHSAT) — a public high school in Brooklyn, New York with 90% Black and Latinx students (2018–2019 NYSED), wanted student to have agency in how their create an educational environment works. So instead of passive users of curricula, school policies and activities, they would have a voice in shaping how the school functions.
Work Model — how the school works
The first phase of the project involved teachers and the principal of WHSAT to undersand the daily routine of the school and the different ways students populate it and engage with their community of teachers and schools staff.
- Immersion into the school’s ecosystem through observation of activities during and outside of classes
- Intercept interviews in the hallways and on the playground;
understand the current issues around their educational goals
Ideation workshop with the core team to discuss insights from research and start generating ideas for co-creation experiments.
We understood that the most interaction dense areas of the school were the community room and the corridors during the intervals, so we designed three experiments to take place in those areas to collect students contributions on how to resolve real issues around school.
Temporary work environments
We used the physical space of the school and to setup three temporary settings and prompts for one week, so that students would contribute ideas in exchange of snacks.
We setup and advertised an after classes forum for students, teachers and school staff to hear from each other about a contested bathroom access policy, that affects the work of teachers during their classes, and raise safety concerns by the school staff monitoring the facilities.
We created a physical voting station to vote on updates of their school currency program. The ballot options were created directly by the students in the previous days through an online poll.
We used some regular hours in the classrooms to create student teams for redesigning a past lesson plan and award each other with awards such as “Most Practical Lesson Plan,” or “Most Original Lesson Plan.
Scale — transferring co-creation principles
The three experiments generated new ideas on how to solution for the bathroom policy, the use of internal currency and revamp lesson plans to keep them engaging. But most importantly, the new types of interaction tested by running the experiments for one week clarified what modes of co-creation would work for the school, and how its specific student audience tend to engage to decision moments, location, timing, and roles.
We organized these learning into a set of memorable, actionable principles that the school administration could use in to structure any possible future co-creation activity and project.
Besides these five principle statements, we also made practical suggestions on how to apply the principles, taking from design expedients we adopted for the experiments:
We designed our materials to meet students where they are.
As a design team we spent the entire week on campus, bringing the initiatives close to students in the classrooms; engaging with them in quick interactions in the minutes between classes or designing posters in a familiar language for students with simple messages, bright colors and friendly illustrations.
We did that to lower as much as possible the barriers for students to participate in a way that would be accessible and comfortable. Similarly, the school should translate any communication and request for the students in visual and event forms that speak to students’ lifestyle and imaginary.
Fun fact: we realized our initiatives were getting noticed after a few days, when students welcomed us as “the poop guy!” (We used the poop emoji in posters to advertise the bathroom town hall.)
Making it real
We discussed intangible aspects like school policies and use of internal fictional currency. We did that ‘materializing’ these conversations through simple but very noticeable prototypes. This practice catch the attention of students, make a issue feel more real and worth attention in their everyday environment.
The presence of prototypes in their spaces made students prompting questions like “Are you actually going to make it happen?” and when the school staff publicly announced that the results of their voting and preferences would be implemented, students were enthusiast to see their engagement translating in something concrete.
Bringing our authentic selves
There are many ways to engage with students. During classroom experiments we mantained a structured approach, respecting educational goals and boundaries of the role and authority of the teacher. On the other hand in the community room, where students spend time for homework, clubs, or just relaxing and socializing, we could speak with them about other feelings and expectation around their life at school. A mix of these approached is necessary for in depth research on social interactions.