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Visualizing the invisible, from service design to sustainability.

Piloting the Collective Action Toolkit in Savannah High Schools


The students at Groves High School were holding back tears. After weeks of discussion, they had decided to focus their efforts on providing food to homeless people. None of them had any personal experience with the issue, so the designers invited a homeless advocate from the community to visit their class and share his experiences. But during a pause, a familiar voice rang out: “I don’t think I ever told any of my students that have been here at Groves this, but I’ve been homeless.”

At frog, we’ve been exploring how student-led problem solving creates ripple effects felt in the classroom, the school, and the community at large. This work has been in partnership with schools and local community groups, who have been using the Collective Action Toolkit (CAT) --our open-source guide to design thinking--in their classrooms and community meetings. The toolkit encourages problem solving as a form of skill development, with group activities that draw on participants’ strengths and perspectives. The toolkit challenges groups to act on their ideas by defining and clarifying shared goals throughout the process.

While we’d initially created the CAT to provide community leaders with resources and activities for bringing groups together to solve problems and create change in their local communities, we’ve seen it used in a much broader array of use cases. This includes everything from corporate innovation groups and startups to NGOs and governments. But we were intrigued by stories from teachers around the world, who were using many of the CAT’s activities in their schools. In order to better understand the potential value of group problem-solving in the high school classroom, we embarked on a 10-week pilot program with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) Design for Sustainability program, in partnership with Design Ethos, Gatorball Academy, and teachers and classes at Beach, Groves, and Savannah High Schools.

In Professor Scott Boylston’s 10-week class “Sustainable Practices in Design,” eight designers worked with 42 students and three teachers in Savannah area high schools. The designers facilitated CAT activities over several weeks, moving from identifying community issues the students were passionate about to proposing implementable solutions using the toolkit’s six categories of activities.

Today on FastCoDesign, I published an article called “Designing Community Action with High School Students,” where I shared stories from the students and three designers—Naz (Najmeh) Mirzaie, Alexandra Pappalardo, and Nathan Sundberg—working together at Beach High School. The article provided readers with a sense of how student-led group problem solving can happen in the classroom. In this companion piece, we’ll travel to Groves and Savannah High Schools, and hear their stories. 


Groves High School: Creating Personal Connections through a Tough Community Issue

Let’s visit Groves High School, and see what happened with SCAD graduate students Eric Green and Marina Petrova. The designers met with 11 students from a nutrition class over 12 55-minute class periods. Like the designers at the other schools, Eric and Marina were excited to start working with the students. They said: "We are there to help unleash the power of the students… Have students been given the power to address challenges through their own unique perspectives?"
In the first class, the designers decided to immediately jump into the problem identification process, rallying the students with an activity called “Ripple Effect.” In the activity, they decided what kind of impact they wanted their group to have, from improving the lives of individuals in their community to changing the country or even the world. Over the following four weeks, the students took part in activities such as mind mapping, where they began to blend their individual passions into shared focus areas such as being a helping hand (volunteering in the school and the community), sports in the community center (encouraging exercise and camaraderie), and cleaning parks and raise money (fundraising for college through community improvement).
After substantial dialogue and brainstorming sessions, the students began to narrow down to gathering canned food for the homeless or having a dress-down day as a fundraiser for school supplies. The designers, however, were a little concerned about pursuing the canned-food solution as it stood:

“The students [had] participated in food drives before, but they would only bring the food in class. They would never meet the people the food was intended for… We [were] thinking about how we can make the experience more personal than just bringing cans to the school.
As an opportunity to personalize relationships, Marina baked homemade baklava and shared pictures of her friends and family from Bulgaria. While enjoying [the food], the students realized that there was canned food on the table as well. This proved as an effective exercise to realize what is the emotion of connection… Marina’s gift inspired the students to make canned food personalized.”

 The students sprung into action through a new activity the designers created, which was called “Pass the Ball.” The students threw a ball back and forth, and whoever caught the ball had to share an idea about how to make canned food personalized. Within a matter of minutes, the students had dozens of ideas.
These first few ideas were part of a journey of discovery for the students. The designers knew that they had an opportunity to bring the issue of homelessness directly into the classroom. They invited Marvin Heery, a homeless advocate in Savannah, to visit the next class. Eric and Marina recount what happened:

“Mr. Heery shared his personal story about how his business depleted his resources and he lost his home. He lived in a shelter, then moved to an affordable housing development. He worked hard to get out of his situation and stayed dedicated to help the homeless.
The students were surprised to hear that there were many reasons for people experiencing homelessness, among which domestic abuse, unstable family, medical or health crisis, loss of a job, foreclosure because of the economy, poor life choices and poor financial management choices. The students were very quiet...
Then something happened that none of us will ever forget. After sitting… in the back, Ms. Dawson cleared her throat, and said she had something to say. “I don’t think I ever told any of my students that have been here at Groves this, but I’ve been homeless.”
The room went silent.
We’d been talking all that time about connections, only to discover one right in class.

For the rest of the class, Ms. Dawson shared her experiences and what motivated her to invest her energy into helping her students. The students gained a personal perspective on the issue of homelessness—one that struck home right where they live. As one student said after that class, "I want to talk to some homeless people really because I want to know their story... Because not every homeless person is a drug addict or alcoholic.”

Savannah High School: Why Don’t We Have a Say?
Graduate students Katie Mansell, Robynn Butler, and Carol Lora worked with students with Savannah High School. Unlike the graduate students at Beach and Groves High School, they had limited classroom time—only six class periods over a month—plus the additional challenge of facilitating 18 to 20 students drawn from two marketing classes. This time constraint became a limiting factor for which ideas the students could realize within their school.
The designers focused the first class periods fully on the students—seeing what role models they looked up to (through the activity “Who Inspires Us”). Then, they shared with the group their personal goals in life and what potential obstacles could get in the way of their future success (as part of the activity “Find Issues, Uncover Needs”). By exposing to all of the students their shared motivations, as well as roadblocks to their future success, the designers felt the students would be better “primed” to collectively discuss and agree on an issue that they cared about. What followed was a mash-up of two activities—storyboarding and setting a group goal—which led the students to agree that health and nutrition, as well as violence, were two subjects that they cared most about changing for the better. (See my FastCoDesign article for how Beach High School handled the subject of community violence.)
At this point, the class broke into two groups, each discussing and writing down as much as they could about those topics. They also freed some of the students with cameras to interview others in their class about those topics. Based on what they’d captured, the whole class started to generate potential solutions to the two issues. Carol Lora describes what happened next:

“When we saw our two boards… it seemed clear that they had a stronger voice [about] the cafeteria food because it was a tangible subject. There are no nutrition facts… Violence was such a broad subject… and with violence, you need to go to a more personal level…”

This was echoed by one of the students, who said when they were interviewing each other on camera: “It is very nasty, it is mystery meat, I don’t know what’s in the food!”
The students decided to focus on health and nutrition, “with a short-term focus on what they can do to advocate for healthier lunches in the school cafeteria," said Katie Mansell. "We enjoyed watching them come to own this idea, and internalize it. They are reflecting and asking questions such as, 'If we are the ones eating the food, why don’t we have a say in what is served?'… as well as bringing ideas to the table about what they can do right now about their concerns.”
Like Beach High School, the students took part in the “Jam Session” activity and generated a broad range of ideas. Since they only had one class left with the designers, the students selected one concept they felt they could make real immediately: a school petition. The class worked together to agree to the most popular and important points they wanted to include in the petition. The designers said:

"The students sought to make a petition that was positive, encouraging of change, non-confrontational, and that would be supported by their peers. They also sought to create awareness of their issue and promote positive action by encouraging their fellow students to post pictures of good food on social media sites and share it with the school."

 Upon reflection, the designers realized this was a distinct difference from the student’s behavior at the start of the class. “The students [at first] did not feel like they could do anything about their personal or community problems,” the designers said, based on what they’d observed from the earlier activities, but the students “quickly started brainstorming solutions.”
At the end of the pilot program, the students had an opportunity to meet with the Lead Nutritionist of the Chatham County Savannah Public School System, Rhonda Barlow. Both parties shared their perspectives, listened respectfully, and Rhonda asked if they would be willing to invite her into their classroom to further the conversation. The students agreed that it would be a great way to continue what they’d started.
Later this week, I will share on Design Mind some of the ripple effects that have occurred as a result of this pilot program, as well as best practices regarding how to deploy design thinking tools like the CAT in the high school classroom.
If you’d like more information about this pilot program, download We Have a Voice: Facilitating Community Action with High School Students, a 100-page document created by the SCAD graduate students about their work with Beach, Savannah, and Groves High School. It also contains the graduate student's findings about how the community organization Gatorball Academy—who helped us connect with the high school teachers and classes—could position themselves to better serve local school students.
Many thanks to the eight graduate students, three teachers, 42 high school students, and community organizations that participated in this pilot program. They include:

Scott Boylston, SCAD Design for Sustainability
David Sherwin, frog
Erin Sanders, frog
Larry "Gator" Rivers, Gatorball Academy / Menyet
Debra Hasan, Gatorball Academy/ Menyet
Robynn Butler, SCAD
Eric Green, SCAD
Carol Lora, SCAD
Marina Petrova, SCAD
Katie Mansell, SCAD
Naz (Najmeh) Mirzaie, SCAD
Alexandra Pappalardo, SCAD
Nathan Sundberg, SCAD
Ms. Wilson, Beach High School
Ms. Dawson, Groves High School
Ms. Reese, Savannah High School


David Sherwin is an interaction design director at frog. He has built his reputation as a design leader, interaction designer, and researcher with 17 years of experience in generating compelling solutions for systemic business problems. David is the author of Creative Workshop: 80 Challenges to Sharpen Your Design Skills and Success by Design: The Essential Business Reference for Designers. You can follow David on Twitter @changeorder.