Real-World Problems with Real-World Solutions

At Mount Vernon, we blur the lines between school and real-life, empowering all learners to be seekers and explorers, and equipping them with the tools to impact the world around them. When Love Beyond Walls, an Atlanta non-profit, approached Mount Vernon Institute for Innovation (MVIFI) and Mount Vernon Presbyterian School about the premier of their new documentary, Voiceless, an authentic opportunity for students to experience another lap in design thinking emerged.  Here was a real-world user with a real-world problem – How might we raise awareness for homelessness and design a way for those who are “voiceless” to be heard?  Terence Lester, creator of Love Beyond Walls, decided to walk from Atlanta, Georgia to Washington, D.C.  to bring attention to the plight of so many people in this country.  This was his solution to bringing awareness to this epidemic, but it was only one idea. Through a 40-minute design sprint, students in ninth through twelfth grades were given the opportunity to develop their own ideas and to create individual prototypes, prototyping over 350 possible solutions to be presented to Love Beyond Walls and other local nonprofits that support this organization.

The design thinking methodology puts people at the center of problem solving. Participants get to the heart of the problem through empathy interviews and then prototyping possible solutions, receiving feedback and iterating along the way. The Voiceless documentary was the entry point into students empathizing with their users and clarifying their understanding of their problems, allowing the viewers to get to know some of the people who Terence met along the way on his journey. Three MVIFI nucleus members, Nicole Martin, Trey Boden and Chris Andres, along with the help of other faculty with design thinking experience, helped guide the students through the second half of the DT process, where students had the opportunity to ideate solutions and to develop a storyboard prototype.  

Using a new tool that MVIFI specifically created for this design sprint, students first went through a round of empathy questions, recalling information about the people they “met” and created a MoVe statement (Moment of Visible Empathy): “Who did you meet? What if…?” and “What blew your mind?”   

During the ideation portion, students were asked to go for volume and bend reality as they brainstormed ideas of how to solve for the needs that the characters expressed in the interviews.  Narrowing it down to one idea, students then used the storyboard visible thinking routine to create a story implementing their “what if…” solution.

Finally, prototypes were collected and displayed, showing hundreds of possible solutions to homelessness, a real-world problem in our local community.   How might we provide more opportunities for students to solve for this and other local and global problems?  The opportunities for these experiences are there, we just need to open our eyes and be willing to jump right in. We all can be change-makers.  Experiences like this shows students that they really can make a difference in our world.  

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