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Spring 2021

Collaborating in the Time of a Pandemic: A Design Thinking Project

For their first Project-Based Learning unit of the year, the entire Middle School came together to think about what it means to work collaboratively during a pandemic.

Collaboration is a key aspect of our Project-Based Learning program and an essential piece of what we value as an educational institution. We know that learning is enhanced when a rich array of perspectives, ideas, and talents come together to work towards a shared goal. Because of the new social distancing requirements, students would not be able to work together in all the same ways as before. With the sharing of materials and working in close quarters no longer a viable option, the question arose, how will we do this?

Step 1. Establishing Project Goals

  • Promote inclusion: every member of a group should feel able to contribute.
  • Find lasting and practical solutions to real-world problems.
  • Take positive risks and think creatively to solve problems.
  • Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing one’s own clearly.

Step 2. Asking Essential Questions

  • What is “true” collaboration?
  • How do you collaborate?
  • How can you collaborate during a global pandemic?
  • How can our school’s mission be upheld during a global pandemic?

Step 3. Building a Foundation

Students began the unit with a group brainstorm to think about their current understandings of collaboration and cooperation, the meaning of these concepts, and what they look like in action. Miro Board, an online collaborative whiteboard platform, was used to engage students on campus and at home together.

Later, in small groups, students answered questions such as, “What made collaboration challenging before the pandemic?”, and, “What unique skills will we need to use in order to collaborate effectively during a pandemic?” Group members were each assigned a role — Equity Officer, Time Keeper, Scribe, Editor, and Project Manager — to ensure that everyone had a voice and role in the work.

Step 4. 3-D Modeling

Middle schoolers developed an understanding of drafting as a form of communication by creating their own designs and drawing them isometrically and orthographically. Next, on the computer, students learned the foundations of Tinkercad, a 3-D modeling program. They drew instant connections between what they learned through first drafting with pen and paper, then seeing the different ways they could move, rotate, and combine shapes on Tinkercad. 

Step 5. Design Thinking

With the foundations of Tinkercad and technical drawing under their belts, students moved on to learn about the Design Thinking process, a way of solving problems through a series of rapid iteration, creativity, and human-centered design activities. Classes worked in small teams to design a rapid-fire prototype for an invention that might keep teenagers from being bored (they called the inventions “boredom busters”). Of course, they memorialized their designs in 3D on the  computer! 

Step 6. Addressing a Real Problem

In the last phase of their unit, middle schoolers used their new skills in prototyping and their knowledge of the design thinking process to tackle a big challenge: Design a solution for mitigating a problem caused by pollution. Their final designs might take the form of a device, an awareness campaign, or any other type of solution that could effectively work to help people solve
the problem.

The research process enabled students to connect more deeply with their issues and helped them to create a meaningful design that was backed up with facts. They problem-solved design solutions independently and then came together as a team to ultimately decide on one idea to present as an extensive project proposal. The proposal had to be well-thought out, clearly-written, and extremely specific, in preparation for the prototyping stage.

After they completed their initial prototypes, students gave a project pitch to another team in the class. The listening team asked clarifying questions and followed up with meaningful feedback so that each team could make adjustments on anything that didn’t quite work or make sense. Final design solutions were presented with GoogleSlides presentations that highlighted their process and final product.

Step 7. Constructing Solutions

As their project came to a close, students created their prototypes, gathered feedback, and finally launched their pollution mitigation designs. While this stage of the work is always exciting, it also comes with its own challenges. Creative work is, well, work! It can be easy to plan and dream up ideas, but it is difficult to figure out how to solve such a complex problem. In the words of Teacher Rachel, “It is a decision to persist, to show up and do the work even when it gets hard!” These talented middle schoolers certainly did show up and persist. They collaborated, they created, and they accomplished their task. 

Over the course of these twelve weeks, middle school students gained a true depth of understanding about the impact of pollution on our immediate communities and the world. They asked a ton of questions, did the research, navigated ideas, created a prototype, and revised their designs. Beyond their ingenious pollution solutions, students realized the palpable power of collaboration and the importance of working together towards a shared goal. They will take these skills with them as they embark upon the many exciting endeavors that await them in their next academic challenges and beyond.


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