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Mary Ruskey and Lori Aument on their design thinking class

Read about the design-thinking approach here.

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Learning By Doing

At Mercy Career & Technical High School, a two year old design thinking class develops entrepreneurs with an eye to solving real-world problems

At Mercy Career & Technical High School, a two year old design thinking class develops entrepreneurs with an eye to solving real-world problems

At the Brown ShopRite community room in North Philadelphia, three local chefs are preparing barbeque chicken for a crowd of shoppers, demonstrating how to prepare the summer classic in a healthier manner. As we nibble on samples, the chefs move on to the rest of their cookout menu: A vinegar-based broccoli slaw, and cherry tomato and red pepper pasta salad. Across the room, the chefs’ partners explain another part of their burgeoning business, Green Flow: A CSA-style box to be delivered to houses packed with produce from local gardens and farms and with recipes for healthy eating.

“We are a 100 percent zero waste business,” the entrepreneurs explain. “All of the packaging we use is biodegradable.”

The boxes—honeycomb-shaped to symbolize the ways bees come together to form a community hive—are not yet on the market. But then the entrepreneurs are not yet exactly  business people and chefs: They’re local high school students, from Mercy Career and Technical High School, a Catholic vocational school in North Philly. And their business plan is part of a unique experiment in project-based learning, using design thinking to solve real world problems while developing the skills for a career in business.

Founded in 1950, Mercy CTE is a project-based learning school that provides a non-traditional path to education in a variety of real-life fields—business, cosmetology, building, computer technology, culinary arts or nursing. Students learn about those fields in the classroom for two years, then spend their senior years in internships with area businesses or organizations so that by the time they graduate, they have a combination of academic and real-world experience.

Mostly, the projects students take on are solved in their classrooms. But business teachers Mary Ruskey and Lori Aument were inspired to rethink their courses by a trip they took with students to help rebuild houses in Mississippi in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Beyond the actual work the students were doing, we realized they were really connecting to people’s stories. Seeing the faces of the people you are helping is what actually makes you care,” Aument explains.

“Design thinking, put simply, is being able to connect directly with the people you are trying to serve,” says Ruskey. “When we used to teach this class we still had the service angle but I learned that instead of deciding what people need, we need to go out and talk to people who are in that situation, who have been in it, or those who work with that population.”

Soon after, the teachers went to graduate school at Drexel University, where they first delved into the idea of design thinking, a process that uses empathy, experimentation and interaction with real customers to create innovative solutions to problems. They came out wondering how they could combine the worlds of business, project-based learning and design thinking together.

“Design thinking, put simply, is being able to connect directly with the people you are trying to serve,” says Ruskey. “When we used to teach this class we still had the service angle but I learned that instead of deciding what people need, we need to go out and talk to people who are in that situation, who have been in it, or those who work with that population.”

In 2015, the teachers launched IMPACT Philly, a design thinking class with the 13 to 15 sophomores who had chosen the business track at Mercy. For the first year, the students came up with an issue they all wanted to address: Homelessness. The students were then divided into groups of three to five to come up with a project that would serve as a solution to the problem. One group thought about creating scarves to give to the homeless to stay warm. But after the class visited the young people at Covenant House, they made a slight alteration: They decided their business would make scarves with a hidden pocket so the homeless would have a place to store their valuables.

After the initial phases of researching and generating ideas, the students in Ruskey and Aument’s class begin prototyping their actual product with real people working in these fields. The scarf students collaborated with fashion design students at Philadelphia University to hone their product and decide what fabric would work best for their purpose.

“We want to teach youth how to help themselves make those connections,” Ruskey says. “Their sophomore year we teach them how to research those involved in the field, how to make phone calls, write emails, and how to talk about their businesses. We then just support them as they actually do the work themselves.” The students finished the scarves with pockets and delivered them to Covenant House at the end of the year.

Beyond redefining what business education is, this course is redefining what education is, or can be. Rather than memorizing facts and taking standardized tests, these students are learning by doing. They learn to research, crunch numbers, talk to people, design, and feel confident to learn what they need to learn in order to carry out their projects.

As juniors this past school year, the students worked independently, choosing their own issues and groups, using the teachers to support them and help them find resources. One group, Give Two Shoes, decided to carry on with the issue of homelessness. One student, Emilio Bautista, told me about a man he knew named Robert who suffered severe frostbite while living on the streets. Robert had to get both of his feet amputated and then died a few weeks later. So his group decided to develop a cover to go over people’s shoes to prevent hypothermia, frostbite and fungi.

They researched and contacted one of the best podiatrists in the country, in California, then talked with design professors at Philadelphia University, who advised them to use Goretex for the product. By the end of the year, Give Two Shoes was still in the design phase—the limitations of class time mean that more in-depth projects aren’t carried out to full completion—but the students are still hoping to manufacture a shoe cover that is lightweight, waterproof, and goes up to mid-calf to prevent hypothermia, frostbite, and fungi.

Other projects are already on the market, like Bows for Betty, hair bows sold to raise money for the Fox Chase Cancer Center.

Green Flow developed their project together after identifying the neighborhood around their school as a food desert. (The business students paired with students from the culinary arts program for the project.) As I gnawed on a chicken leg outside of their food demonstration in late May, one of the members, Chase Kelsey, explained more about Green Flow’s intentions. “I knew I wanted to impact the environment and people and realized that food connected all of these things in the most simple way,” he said. “There is not much access to healthy food in certain parts of Philadelphia which leads to a lot of health problems including childhood obesity. And so we started thinking, How we can make healthy eating fun, easy, and convenient for people?”

Mercy Vocational Student
Photo via Mercy Career & Technical High School

Beyond redefining what business education is, this course is redefining what education is, or can be. Rather than memorizing facts and taking standardized tests, these students are learning by doing. They learn to research, crunch numbers, talk to people, design, and feel confident to learn what they need to learn in order to carry out their projects. “We relied on our teachers a lot last year as sophomores because this was all new to us,” Emilio told me. “But this year, we basically know what to do and how to handle it on our own, and we know that our teachers are there to support us. But they really encourage us to do it on our own.”

The students in IMPACT Philly are graded through qualitative assessments throughout their process, not through tests. “For success, we look at students being able to identify their goals, if they met them, what steps they took to meet them, and what challenges they came across and what they would do differently,” explains Aument “It’s about how they pivot. And we also assess their presentation and business skills.” The teachers say that student presentation scores, as judged by outside groups, increased by 30 percent from mid-term to end of the year.

Throughout the year, students present their progress to their classmates and also regularly present to organizations and folks they partner with. They also create basic websites for their businesses, and last year a group of graphic designers came in to offer feedback. “When the students are presenting to professionals, they really take in the advice. It all becomes much more real and then they want to make their work better,” says Ruskey.

The groups also participate in entrepreneurial conferences and competitions such as the Diamond Challenge and IMPACT Philly. One student team this year placed in the top 10 overall, winning $1,000 in startup funding.

In the upcoming school year, the students from the design thinking class will go onto a co-op, putting to the test some of the real-world business skills they’ve developed in their coursework. But several of the students, including those from Green Flow, want to continue their collaboration with Shoprite on healthy eating programs, and even continue after high school.

“It’s really intense to take something in your head and work with others to put it on paper and then realize it in real life,” says Chase. “It’s really fun too.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story used a previous name for Mercy. The new name is Mercy Career and Technical High School.

Header photo: Mercy CTE

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