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Tackling Wicked Problems with my Students During a Pandemic

Some of you may know that one of the central components in my Code+Design class at York is the design thinking process. For those unfamiliar with that, it is a system developed out of Stanford University and other design studios to solve problems. This is Wikipedia’s definition:
Design thinking encompasses processes such as context analysis, problem finding and framing, ideation and solution generating, creative thinking, sketching and drawing, modeling and prototyping, testing and evaluating. Core features of design thinking include the abilities to:
  • resolve ill-defined or 'wicked' problems
  • adopt solution-focused strategies
  • use abductive and productive reasoning
  • employ non-verbal, graphic/spatial modeling media, for example, sketching and prototyping.

Wicked problems

Design thinking is especially useful when addressing problems which are wickedly difficult, in the sense of being ill-defined or tricky, not malicious. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber contrasted these with "tame" or "well-defined" cases where the problem is clear and the solution available through applying rules or technical knowledge.
For seven years, we've used this process to develop solutions for a variety of local and national organizations including elderly care facilities, local elementary schools, SPCA Monterey County, and MY Museum, the local children’s museum. I ask my students to think of themselves as technological entrepreneurs who look for ways to use the tech and design skills they learn to have a positive impact on the community. When we are on campus we meet in our design shop to use tools, materials, and electronic components to prototype and create products for these organizations. While not all of the problems we attempt to solve would fit within the wicked category, they all feel important.

Last year, York Code+Design students worked with teachers of visually impaired students in San Francisco and Los Angeles do develop 3D models to help the students visualize what they could not see. These models have been deployed and are currently in use by blind students throughout the state.



If you go to the adoption center at the SPCA, you’ll see an exhibit that helps visitors learn about the wide variety of adoptable animals using animal images and sounds.

We have become MY Museum’s primary contractor when they need a new exhibit created or repaired.



It's been about nine months since I've worked with students in our shop or our second classroom, the museum. 

Teaching a hands-on studio class over Google Meet is kind of a drag. I know it’s kind of a drag for my fellow teachers as well. Inspired by all the creative ways my colleagues have turned this into lemonade, I decided to connect with Lauren the Executive Director of MY Museum to see if there’s work to be done. As you can understand, museums are hit particularly hard during COVID. You’ve probably heard about how difficult this is for the aquarium. The museum has been closed since March which you can imagine is profoundly difficult for this community non-profit. Likewise, the museum’s closure is a serious problem for our local families with young children who depend on the museum as a great place for kids to learn through play. As a parent of young kids (and a proud member of the museum), I feel this problem on a personal level not being able to take my kids to their beloved museum. I think we can categorize the museum being closed for nine months as a community wicked problem.

So my students began to go through the empathy and ideate stages of the design thinking process to help develop solutions to these problems. We determined that we could partner with the museum in designing fun activities that parents and young children could work on together to replicate the play-through-learning experience kids get when they walk through the doors of the museum. Some of the projects require everyday household objects while others would require small inexpensive kits parents could pick up at the museum. Myra K developed a secret message decoder that teaches kids about light characteristics. Tyler D is creating a computer game that teaches kids about various careers and how they serve the community. Derek G, working remotely from China, is developing an activity using a variety of liquids found in the kitchen to teach children about density. Collin F is developing a kit where kids can create their own star constellations using cardboard and LED lights while Niko P is still working on a kit to build a functional Big Sur Lighthouse model using similar materials.



These projects are still in development, but once we get them ready to publish, we will work with the museum to distribute them to families throughout the county and up in the Bay Area using their extensive network and membership.

While I am deeply inspired by the work these students are doing, I have to confess that this has been a painful process. Not being able to work side-by-side with these young designers, not having access to the amazing tools and materials we have in the shop, constantly asking students to share their screens with me, dropping off materials to students during their soccer or volleyball cohort activity ... the whole process has been ... very ... slow. I have not covered the skills and material I would have wanted to cover by December of any other school year. That weighs on me, and I'm not sure I'm as effective of a distance learning teacher I thought I would be.

No doubt others have found the right way to balance those forces more effectively than me, but I will continue to follow the learn-by-doing model that my friend, colleague, and former student, Grace, helped teach me to model. 

For all of us, COVID has presented wicked problem after wicked problem. To get closer to solving these problems, perhaps the best method is to use that design thinking process ... empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test, and iterate.

Then move on to the next wicked problem.


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