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Harrisburg Middle Schoolers Use Problem-Solving Model from Stanford University

Jackie Hendry

Students at Harrisburg South Middle School are learning to solve the world's problems through empathy. Carla Diede teaches the new class. She's a recent recipient of the Milken Educator Award, also known as the "Oscars of teaching." 

In a classroom with wall-to-wall white boards, sixth graders draw concept maps about school supplies, shoe design, and women's rights in Nepal. Their principal, Darren Ellwein, plays pop music to help boost creativity. This is all part of a new class based on a model from Stanford University called Design Thinking. Carla Diede team-teaches the class with Darren Ellwein. They both visited Stanford a few years ago. Diede says there they learned the approach first-hand. 

"What does it look like to empathize with your user, define a problem, ideate solutions to that problem, prototype--so actually create your solutions--and then test them out, and then continually go through that process?" 

After visiting Stanford, Diede noticed how empathetic her middle school students are toward problems in the world. That gave her an idea.

"Could we give them a structure or a process that they could use in order to do just that? To change the world, solve problems," she says.

That's how they started a class they call Idea Foundry. Every six weeks, a new group of sixth graders learns how to use the design thinking model. Each group starts with something they all know well.

"So what we actually ask them to look at the first go 'round is, how can we make our school better," Diede says.

Students ask their peers questions about what they like about school, and the problems they have. They bring up some basic things like not being able to get into their locker, but it also teaches kids how to be deliberate as they approach a problem through empathy and listening. 

"And form there they kind of get a picture of who their user is. In this case they actually are their user as well, because they're a learner at our school," Diede says.

Once they grasp the basic steps, students choose their own project. Then, students reach out to experts in the field. Once they've defined the problem, they work on solutions.

"The whole philosophy is 'yes,and,'" Diede explains. "There is no such thing as a bad idea. If we have an idea we're not gonna say 'Yes,but...' That just shuts it down. Instead we want the kids to learn how to say, 'Yes, and what about this too?'"

That's where the white boards and concept maps come in. Sixth graders Ava Kinghorn and Ireland Branaugh look at notes on their iPads while they brainstorm. The words "Nepalese Women" are in the center of their concept map. They've added notes about immigration and the large population of Nepalese immigrants in Sioux Falls. Ava says they combined each other's interests into one project. 

Credit Jackie Hendry
Ava Kinghorn (left, 12) and Ireland Branaugh (right, 12) work through the "ideate" phase of the Stanford Design Thinking Model.

"We wrote down ideas we wanted projects on, and Ireland was interested in women's rights and I was also kind of interested in foreign countries, so we put those together," she says.

Ireland says they've reached out to a couple experts.

"We have a social worker with Harrisburg, and we also contacted--but they haven't contacted us back--the multicultural center of Sioux Falls where we might be able to have a live interview with a Nepalese woman," Ireland says.

Many of the experts are surprised to hear from 11 and 12 year-olds, and some even think it's a prank. But once they start interacting with the students, Darren Ellwein says, "I mean, they love it."

He adds, "And it's really even better when those people, when they're talking to the kids they reinforce just being creative and being able to think in a different way."

Some students need help narrowing a broad topic down to a manageable level. Abigail Roozebool is concerned about pollution. The movie Wall-E inspired her to do something that can help the planet. 

Credit Jackie Hendry
Abigail Roozebool (12) scrolls through notes on her iPad before drafting an email to the Harrisburg City Council.

"We can't do what the people in Wall-E do. we can't live in space!" says Abigail.

But global pollution is a big problem to solve. A conversation with teacher Carla Diede unconvers a new approach.

"I'm trying to make littering stop," Abigail says. "The person I'm going to be talking to is the Harrisburg City Council."

She will ask council members how she can fight littering in their own community.

Carla Diede says each student takes their own unique spin on the class. About half choose passion projects that they want to research. The rest look for problems they can solve. 

The class follows a growing effort to make learning more practical for when students leave the classroom. Diede says classes like Idea Foundry help students delve deeper into their core subjects. For instance, students researching global warming learn science. But the ultimate goal reaches beyond test scores. 

"We don't know what kind of jobs their going to have in the future," Diede says. "So we want them to be able to think for themselves and to problem solve and to get some of those skills as well to back up that content they have. So, they know that maybe there isn't a solution out there, but maybe they're the person that's gonna invent that solution."

After talking with their expert, students Ireland Branaugh and Ava Kinghorn have even more people to contact. 

"Lutheran Social Services was to talk to more social workers, and the Nepali Glory Church was to talk to Nepalese people," Ireland says.

"Yeah, and she gave us more connections like the personal contact information for the multicultural center," Ava adds.

The girls plan their next phase: designing a website to display all the information they gather about the challenges Nepalese immigrant women might face. 

Principal Darren Ellwein says this kind of approach to problem solving gives students a new way to learn.

"And make it more learner empowered," he says, "which is really the basis of this class. It's empowering them to be able to drive their own learning, but they're still learning."

And they're learning how to focus on something they care about. Carla Diede notes that middle schoolers can be very passionate and serious.

"It's just really cool to see the kids get excited about that. To know that, hey, I'm making a difference! And this really does matter, it's not just something I'm doing for a grade in a class, but it has a greater meaning."

And that meaning will help these students become productive adults in a future they are only beginning to define.