Some of the ideas pitched on the third floor of Synapse’s office in downtown Seattle last week sounded like they came from seasoned entrepreneurs.
An affordable apartment living complex made from recycled shipping containers. A mobile app designed for tourists that gamified the experience of visiting Seattle’s landmarks and local attractions. A relaxation room equipped with projectors and tablets for companies that want a place where employees can recharge at work during the day.
But those that presented in front of their peers and a group of judges were not even old enough to drink, let alone drive.
Instead, these were teenagers interested in grooming their leadership skills and learning how to best become a future leader.
Leadership+Design, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, held workshops last week in Seattle that helped both students and teachers learn more about how to tackle challenges using design-inspired solutions and innovations.
Students spent an entire week learning an array of skills that they can take with them to college and beyond. Topics like team maintenance, prototyping, user research, iteration, idea development, and storyboarding presentations were covered.
At the beginning of the workshop, participants gathered in teams and were given a design challenge around urban living. They then worked with mentors to help come up with a prototype or solution, and came together on the final day to present their ideas to a panel of professionals.
Each day was dedicated to a different stage of the design process, which offered students a glimpse into what they’ll be experiencing in the real world soon enough.
“To be thinking about how projects work, how you present them, how you pitch them, how you solve problems and how you take feedback — to get that insight this early is just ridiculously valuable,” said Mike Eisenstein, a product development manager at PATH who helped judge the pitches.
By the time the presentations ended and it was time to say goodbye, the 40 students hugged each other goodbye and exchanged phone numbers. It was clear that they not only met new friends, but also gained invaluable experience to take with them back to school and into the workplace.
“I definitely learned more about the process of project development,” said Kiril Palaveev, a junior at Ingraham High School. “We learned how to organize our ideas, brainstorm effectively and just work with a group. We learned how to balance different personalities and gain an understanding about how to best work with other people.”
That’s exactly what Leadership+Design hopes that students walk out with: real-world skills that they may not gain in the traditional K-12 system.
“We want them to have the ability to begin to tackle problems, rather than be overwhelmed,” said Tim Vos, a consulting teacher with Leadership+Design who helped lead the week-long workshop. “We hope the students come away with a greater sense of self, and collaboration.”
Students had a chance to hear from a different guest speaker each day, with people from Microsoft, Artefact, Igor, and Frog Design all sharing advice. Synapse, which hosted the event, allowed the kids to join its weekly Wednesday lunch, where Synapse employees gather to discuss new developments within the company.
When it came time for presentations on the final day, it was clear that the students were thinking about solutions to problems in the right way. Teams spoke in depth about profitability; some had even developed app prototypes. Every group had also gone out in the streets and conducted market research.
“I wish the Seattle City Council was as creative as you guys around affordability of downtown living,” one judge said.
While their ideas may never hit the market, the students gained new insights into what the design process is really all about. It was hard to believe some of the kids were so young after hearing them talk about what they learned.
“I liked the experience of narrowing down ideas and finding one that fits,” explained Lizzie Willsmore-Finkle, a junior at the Seattle Academy of Arts and Sciences. “A lot of times, you design something and want it to fit everyone’s needs — you find out conversely that’s not the case. It needs to be specific.”
“I really learned how to articulate my ideas properly in front of a group, and how to really collaborate and think outside of the box,” added Sophia Alhadefa, a senior at The Overlake School. “And I learned how to question ideas, which can sometimes be difficult. I can take this back to situations in school and work.”
The folks at Leadership+Design also met with teachers last week to help them learn more about ways to better educate kids on problem solving and teamwork skills.
“The goal is to create these small innovation pods that teachers can go back to school with and be a leader for change,” Vos said. “We talk to them about things like the innovation cycle, early adopters, and the percentage of innovations that fail. It gives them the steps to get a foothold.”
Ultimately, the goal for Leadership+Design is to give school leaders the tools they need to help cultivate more forward-thinking leaders. But the non-profit also thinks that by being exposed to real world problems and learning how to come up with real world solutions, students can be an agent of change, too.
“Our hope is that more students get this type of learning in school,” Vos said. “They aren’t the most powerful people in the system, but we hope that by sharing these experiences and knowing what’s possible, they can begin to move the system in that way.”