“Designing” A New Way to Start the Year

Let me start this post off with being up-front: WE ARE NOT a design thinking school.  In fact, before last Thursday, there were only a couple people (students or staff) in our school that even knew what design thinking was.  New Technology High School has a rich history that is rooted in project-based learning.  However, we really wanted to examine a way we could kick-off our school year the right way.  That is where design thinking came in.  Now, I know we aren’t the first school to utilize design thinking with students or staff, but I do want to share the magic that happened to start our 2015-2016 school year.  It is launching us into a new era of what New Tech High is all about: creating a culture of excellence with a bias to action.

Since moving to Napa, I have been blessed to get plugged into the work that the Stanford d.school and IDEO are doing.  Whether it be through their School Retool pilot or attending a design thinking workshop with one of our facilitator’s this Summer, it has definitely influenced my thinking as a leader.  Last Thursday, in our first professional learning day, we introduced design thinking to our staff through a classroom hack challenge.  We brought students in to create empathy, allowed them to prototype in human scale in their classrooms, and test out each others ideas to get feedback.  This really set us up in a great position to launch the new school year in a brand new way.


There were some clear goals of utilizing design thinking in our kick-off project.  We first decided that including all 415 students in self-selected mixed grade groups was important.  The following goals really drove our work:

  • Build understanding of the design thinking process
  • Create a clear bias to action in our work
  • Deepen the level of collaboration across grade-levels
  • Strengthen student voice and choice
  • Build school culture through an authentic learning experience

The last goal really was a game changer.  Many times schools (myself included) struggle to create authentic experiences to build school culture.  School culture activities take place independently from authentic learning and can sometimes seem fluffy.  If students opt-out, then it creates a new “distraction” to the goal of the culture-building.  By utilizing a design thinking challenge as our orientation, we were able to cultivate a deepened sense of collective efficacy in our school as a whole.  I want to provide a brief overview of what the 3-day challenge looked like:

Day 1:

We started day 1 with what we call an all-school meeting (ASM) to kick-off the school year and challenge.  Students were presented with the question:

  • How might we tackle a problem that effects our community (local, national, global)?

We kept the question as vague as possible to allow teams to really create their own problem definition moving forward.


After the ASM, students explored 10 theme topics: teens, violence, water, human rights, privacy, equity, food waste, immigration, robotics, and change as growth.  All students got to be in one of their top three topic choices.  After getting in their theme groups, students began to examine potential users to build empathy.  They did interviews, created empathy maps, and began self grouping into common problem teams within their theme.  Next, these new teams began crafting a needs statement for their user.  By the end of the day, we had come back together as a school to reflect on the day and examine some new logistical need to knows.

Day 2:

Day 2 started with students getting back in their theme groups.  They revisited and expanded on the empathy map and needs statement they created.  Students focused on brainstorming wild ideas.  We really focused on deferring judgment and challenging assumptions during this process.  No idea was a bad idea.  Before narrowing their idea, we spent some time analyzing our new school-wide learning outcomes and sense-making what “student agency” was.  Along with this, upperclassman spent time supporting freshman and new students through buddy walks, breaking myths, and answering need to knows.


To narrow their idea down to start prototyping, we watched a video from Nordstrom’s Innovation lab about rapid prototyping.  This really kicked our groups off into action.  Along the way, students participated in a few creative expression activities to help build culture within the context of the challenge.  This was amazing to watch.  We didn’t need to stop the project to build a stronger connection between our students.



Before I talk about prototyping, I must say we are blessed to have such a supportive school community.  Families donated a wealth of supplies to help encourage that bias to action.  To end the afternoon, student teams focused on designing their first iteration of their prototype for the solution to their problem.  At this point, we essentially had 10 themes, and about 100 different problems being solved!

Day 3:

To build energy for the final day, our ASB lead student’s on a school-wide scavenger hunt.  The focus on the hunt was to find out more about who we are as a school.  Each clue had a discussion question that groups had to answer before getting the clue right.


After this, we jumped right back into prototyping.  Students used user feedback protocols to get ideas for improving their prototypes.  This was one of the hardest tasks for our upperclassman.  I found many older students were okay with being content with their first iteration.  The staff did an amazing job at challenging each group to re-iterate, re-iterate, re-iterate; building the capacity of our students to utilize feedback to make positive changes to their idea.


Before lunch, each of the ten theme groups presented their ideas to each other.  In these groups, they would decide on one team to send forward to pitch their prototype to the entire student body.  It was awesome to see our students share their learning and continue to take feedback on their ideas.

After lunch, we gathered as a whole school to hear the 10 theme finalists pitch their prototypes to their peers.  We had students represent all 4 grades, all ethnic backgrounds, and all comfort levels of public speaking.  Our finalist ideas covered the entire spectrum of the challenge.  Here are a few of the prototypes:

  • A web-service to connect immigrants with potential employers in our community
  • A fortune cookie series to promote online “cookies” safety
  • An app for transgender teens to find safe transport
  • A robot family member to support a changing workforce
  • An app that allows teens to limit their social media access
  • A scientific tool to help farmers regulate water use based on barometric weather


All of the prototypes were 100% driven by the students interest and developed through the design thinking process.  The awesome thing is that every single group will have the ability to move their prototype forward.  The winning group will get extra support (coaching, seed grant, and trip to Stanford), but every student will have an avenue to continue to develop their idea.


Regular classes start Thursday at New Tech High.  But I can tell you, our Design Thinking Challenge to kick-off the year built culture, deepened learning, and created a buzz around what it means to be a Penguin at New Tech High!

Here is to a great year!


One thought on ““Designing” A New Way to Start the Year

  1. Riley, this is exciting work. The intentionality of design and purpose powerful. I’m motivated by the outcomes you’ve shared here and thank you for sharing the thinking and the process that inspired this.


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