Creating Innovators: Learning Pathways for iDiploma

After wrapping up our Design Thinking Accelerator Module, Innovation Diploma cohorts were faced with a difficult task of choosing their learning pathway for the fourth Module. Through a survey tool and conversations with their advisors, learners chose the best pathway based on skill level and interest.

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For the Product Design and Innovation Module, which is a module headed up by two of the four iDiploma advisors, Bo Adams and T.J. Edwards,  learners are working on enhancing ethnographic work, practicing functional decomposition for various products and playing with the design and innovation of existing products. Part of the purpose of this module is to continue to emphasize that the world is malleable – and that YOU have the agency to be the designer and builder who makes something better or something entirely new. This Product Design and Innovation Module provides us a fun excuse to examine the made world, to rethink existing designs, to make some stuff, and, potentially, to design and create something entirely new. Initially, the products and designs will be for something that either Mr. Edwards or Mr. Adams proposes; however, the hope is that the Cohort will begin to generate their own bug/opportunity lists to chip away at – and hopefully create something that connects with their interests and can add value to others.

This module is part of the “onboarding” series that exposes our learners to skills and concepts that will be called upon in later, more complex ventures over the next few years.


Initially, some of the ventures iDiploma cohorts work on are heavily constructed by the facilitators. Sometimes the ventures are ideas or projects submitted to iDiploma from the community (Design Briefs), and other times learners will be the ones to identify a bug or an opportunity that they think is worthy of their time. This module, is a bit of a hybrid – the original project idea stemmed from an observation journal (bug list) of an iDiploma member, then the facilitators helped coach the groups through design thinking methodologies to come up with iterated solutions to the “how might we?” they landed on as a team.  Most groups stopped there, as the dt module purpose was primarily to practice the skills and mindsets integral to design thinking and to make headway in a problem or opportunity. However, our ultimate hope is that learners would choose to continue, not because we told them to, but because they felt called to do that work – whether to help others or because it aligned with their interests. This pathway was ideal for those learners who self identified the work from the Design Thinking Accelerator Module as their primary focus and venture. One group of four chose this pathway in order to further their work in answering this question: how might we make sustainability part of the DNA at Mount Vernon? This group of learners has done an incredible amount of discovery and empathy work that helped steer them in the direction of creating a physical prototype of a new recycling/trash system for the Middle School, called RISE. Read more about their venture here.


Last year, iDiploma was incredibly successful in our “consultivation” work (consult + innovation) where we invited members from the Mount Vernon community to bring a problem or opportunity to be workshopped in a 90 minute design thinking session. The partners we had for those sessions left with plausible and implementable solutions, and our learners became much more comfortable with their design thinking muscles. This year, we committed to incorporate even bigger and longer term projects via “Design Briefs” that anyone in the community can generate. Essentially, we’re creating a pool of potential projects that are not out of a textbook or dreamed up by a teacher, but instead projects that are generated out of need in the community.  

Innovation Diploma has received a handful of Design Briefs in the past few months. One particular brief rose to the top because of the scale and potential impact on the community. This opportunity, provided to us by Jeff Garrison from S.J. Collins Enterprises, has us concepting site plans for an outdoor community space that will be part of a larger high-end retail complex anchored by Whole Foods. This development, which sits on 11 acres, has the potential to change the landscape and the community, which is why we are so excited to be part of this incredible venture.

To work on this project in partnership with the community is complex and will require a greater degree of leadership and initiative on the part of the entire iD Design Brief team – which is why there was an application process to get on this team, and why the team is made up of mostly of second year iDiploma members. For this module, we continue to build skills in critical thinking, communication, creativity and collaboration, and what’s most exciting is that the evaluations and assessments are grounded in authenticity. There are external people relying on this team and an entire community that needs to be on board with the final concepts. As our assessment model is made up of self, peer, and expert feedback in both quantitative and qualitative forms, and we value process, progress and product, this venture aligns well with what we believe is authentic, purposeful learning. Afterall, with an added layer of purpose, and with experts outside of the classroom providing feedback, who wouldn’t feel motivated to learn, understand and apply skills generally taught in isolation, such as the Pythagorean Theorem?


Overall, this entire module – with all its moving parts and complexities –  is about more deeply understanding the needs of a client or a user. This is what makes the iDiploma program unique. At the same time, our instructional methods strive to meet the learners where they are, in terms of identifying their own interests and curiosities, as well as in terms of their developing skill level. There’s an element of authenticity that grows as our learners develop in both skill and understanding. Currently the project goals and the scope of each of the pathways is vastly different and that’s intentional. Over time, we are creating opportunities for learners to gain a greater sense of self and even greater ownership over their learning journeys. Through explorations and exposure to a variety of types of innovation and a variety of potential project origins, we are continuing to build their toolboxes, so that each and every iDiploma cohort member can chart their own journey and know what is essential to take with them on this journey. They will be able to use design thinking and the core DNA skills of an innovator as steerage to propel them forward. They will naturally make time to pause and reflect, share their journey, ask for feedback and iterate. Ultimately, they will put their own mark on the world and do it with a tremendous amount of confidence and craftsmanship.


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