Monday, March 24, 2014

Community Connections: Design Thinking for Action

Not only do we need to spark a love of learning in our students but also equip them with the strength to lead in their communities, both local and global.  Through the use of Design Thinking and our "community connections" program, Ellis students go beyond school walls where they can extend their classroom knowledge and develop their passions through experiential learning and research opportunities in Pittsburgh’s technology and medical labs, arts organizations, environmental sites, and global initiatives. Through active learning in their community, often involving service, students gain self-confidence, the satisfaction of successful collaboration and become change agents in their community. 

In what ways has your classroom collaborated with both the local and global community? What does collaboration within school walls look like?  What needs to happen in schools to incorporate & support partnerships as an aspect of the curricular program? 

My school has a “partnership collaborative” coordinated by me and three other teachers. We look to build partnerships and infuse them across the curricular program - particularly within Design Thinking challenges. We look for opportunities to partner and approach teachers where the partnership may fit. We also find partnerships based off of teacher requests and the four of us meet during a regularly scheduled planning time every two weeks. We also maintain a database of our work within Google Drive.

Ellis Engineering Students visiting the Pittsburgh Zoo
Here are some ways we work with parnterships in the community: 

  • We worked with the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy in our ninth grade Voice and Vision (V&V) class on the "Panther Hollow Lake Extravaganza," along with other projects in our lower and middle schools where girls are "EcoStewards." In the V&V class, the girls created an awareness campaign around prevention of pollution at the lake, QR code stickers and twitter accounts as a part of the campaign. 
  • In another activity we developed artificial limbs in the upper school engineering course through our partnership with the Quality of Life Technology Center and were awarded the top solution among all schools participating.
  • We worked with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (School of Medicine) to remix and “hack” a flu study (SMART) at our school to identify a solution to decrease spread of flu at Ellis. Girls are iterating on process or products that will limit the spread of flu, interviewed other students, created stakeholder maps and used several other Design Thinking methods from the LUMA Institute system. 
  • Right now we are also doing two Design Thinking challenges with the city and port authority as a part of the Pittsburgh Big Data Jam - one project around public transportation and its correlation to assaults and one related to crime correlated to lack of green space.

Stakeholder Maps for the Ellis Flu Prevention Project 

Ellis students gain leadership skills, learn to be strong collaborators and create real solutions for partners across the city. Here is a list of some our current curricular partners:

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC)
Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy (PPC)
Carnegie Mellon University CREATE Lab 
Phipps Conservatory 
Quality of Life Technology Center
The Pittsburgh Zoo
Animal Rescue League 
Mattress Factory
Pittsburgh Center for the Arts
Andy Warhol Museum
Arsenal School
The Children's Institute 
Steeltown Entertainment 
Powder Mill Nature Preserve
IBM/Pittsburgh Dataworks 
World Affairs Council
Global Solutions Pittsburgh
Science Ambassadors
The Center for STEM Education for Girls

We are also involved in several research partnerships with Professors at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.


  1. Love this post detailing the partnerships that empower authentic work for making significant differences in the lives and learning of many! Brava!

    1. Thanks! We are working to infuse even more partnerships that create deep and meaningful work for all involved.

  2. What great work and impressive list of partners. Are these groups you have connected with, but not necessarily worked with yet? For example, you have them as a group of community collaborators ready to go when needed? Do you go to them to work on a challenge, or do they sometimes have challenges or projects where they are looking to work with students?

  3. Thanks Ellen! Every group listed we have worked with and currently integrate into our curricular program in some way. Some are also willing and ready to extend the partnership across the school in a deeper way. For example, we work with the parks from k-12 but UPMC is currently only upper school. However, UPMC wants to partner with us in MS and LS and we are currently planning. (Probably a MS elective of some kind and integrated into LS science via "Telemedicine" technology. We usually approach them with challenge ideas but some submit ideas to us. Our partnership collaborative manages this!