Can 'design thinking' solve poverty and racism? | August 9, 2013 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - August 9, 2013

Can 'design thinking' solve poverty and racism?

Middle school students apply design principles to problems they see

by Chris Kenrick

Middle school students in East Palo Alto brainstormed for solutions to racism, poverty and bullying in a summer program that emphasized new ways of problem solving.

The 17 students in the Foundation for College Education's new Steam program used principles of "design thinking," developed at the, Stanford University's Institute of Design, to create projects addressing problems in their neighborhoods.

"We picked poverty because we saw homeless people in East Palo Alto," said Javier Berrera, whose group came up with the idea of placing donation boxes for school supplies around town, with information on dropout rates attached.

"The reason we thought a lack of education was a big part of poverty was because most of our parents didn't finish school," he said.

"We thought kids who drop out have a lack of resources, and school supplies would encourage them to get excited about school."

College students Rachel Jue and Ken Kauffman, who have participated in programs at the Stanford, spent four weeks teaching the middle school students how to apply the steps of "design thinking," which they described as "empathy, define, ideate, prototype and test."

The summer unit, which ended last week, was "a way to get kids to be a little more abstract while doing some concrete work," said Anna Waring, executive director of Foundation for a College Education. The summer curriculum also included some discussion of early college planning for the students, most of whom are entering sixth grade, as well as trips to Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve, a water-treatment plant and the Exploratorium.

The 18-year-old Foundation for College Education runs parent education and after-school programs to increase the number of students of color from the East Palo Alto area who graduate from a four-year college. Of the program's 140 graduates since 1999, all have enrolled in college and 85 percent have graduated or are on track to do so — more than three times the national rate for students of color.

This summer's Steam program was the launch of the foundation's new program for middle school students, aimed at helping the youth "develop the curiosity, persistence and resilience to become successful learners and adolescents."

In the fall, the middle schoolers will come to the Foundation for College Education twice a week to do homework and mentoring and, one Saturday a month, to do larger projects or take field trips to places like Stanford's technology-based FabLab or the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Waring said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at