Graduate Design Studio 2 — Weekly Reflections

With Peter Scupelli Nierenberg Associate Professor of Design and Director of Learning Environments Lab and Stefania La Vattiata

Week 1

Personally, the topic of K-12 education is one that I’m truly interested in given my own background attending public school in New York for my entire K-12 experience. I went to school with the same group, K-12, and my graduating class with 55 students. It was the same school that my great grandparents went to so everyone knew you and your family.

I currently have two children in the local public school here in Mt. Lebanon, a suburb here in Pittsburgh. My son is in third grade. My daughter is in first grade. It’s been a mix of online and hybrid during the pandemic.

It was interesting to reflect on my own educational journey. I remember my father coming home with an entire Encyclopaedia Britannica print set that sat on a three feet tall bookshelf in our living room. My father always prized education. He loved his children and would make any sacrifice for their happiness. He taught me many things, but most importantly, he showed me how to love unconditionally. He passed peacefully on Wednesday. I am thankful I was able to work with him on a project for Peter’s Design Ethos and Action course in 2019. It’s a project I will treasure.

My team and class have been extremely supportive and I look forward to working with them more this week.

Week 2

As we prepared to deliver our first deliverable, I felt slightly uncomfortable presenting on a topic we had only just started to explore. However, after talking with Peter he reassured us that our own educational backgrounds were relevant and should be used as a starting point to explain our position and why were gravitated towards specific topics.

Team photo

I am really proud of the positive team attitude that my group has, and I would love to try and keep that consistent as we move forward with our projects. I’m also proud of the way our team was able to come together and each add to our presentation in a way that made it much stronger and more compelling.

My main question moving forward is how can we honor the work that Prospect Studios started and keep students at the core of our research and approach? Given the location of Santa Clara, there are some challenges but also opportunities that we need to consider. I have connections with local public school teachers that might allow us to better understand what teachers think “future-ready students” means.

The only thing that I might want to include in the team contract is that when we agree on a direction we should be careful of looking back and rehashing old topics. I also think it might be helpful to think about a way to vote on decisions.

Week 3

This week I have been reminded about the many things that are outside of my control, and it doesn't feel good. Outside pressures like work, school, internship, health and wellness, the endless uncertainty of pandemic, and my family are always on my mind. For my family, I realize that my grad school journey has been their journey as well. As much as I have tried to decouple grad school from my personal life, it has not worked the way we thought it might. Or perhaps it did, but it’s getting old? Regardless, it’s not fair to them. I’m grateful to be able to attend grad school, especially here at CMU, but part of me is looking forward to commencement. To me, the word “commencement” means both the end of my journey here at CMU and the start of something new and promising.

In May I will have a plan…

In May I will spend more time with you...

In May we can get together…

In May we will fix that…

While part of me wants to extend my journey or at least soak up every last opportunity, lecture, impromptu theoretical chat, research paper, or new book, the other part can’t wait until May. I know once I graduate I will miss it, but for now, it feels like a wedge between me and spending time with my wife, children, friends, and family. It feels like some kind of sea monster attached to my leg as I attempt to stay afloat and swim to shore.

My first visit back to campus since the beginning of the pandemic

Week 4

Last week, I visited campus for the first time in several months. It was strange to see the campus in its current state, but I truly admire all of the faculty, staff, and students willing to put in the extra effort to help us all slowly return to “normal.”

Even though my team and I have only met virtually, I think we and really coming together as a team. If I were tracking us along Psychologist Bruce Tuckman’s Developmental Sequence in Small Groups scale, I think we're are at the “norming” phase of the “forming, storming, norming, and performing” journey. Knowing I have the option to meet in the studio is a huge psychological step forward.

I also want to note the tremendous respect I have for my fellow team members as they learn more about public K-12 education in the US. As a product of K-12 public schools in the US, I almost feel like an ambassador of that experience, part teacher and part learner. There is no doubt that my lived experiences are valuable to the conversation, but their exploratory research as one outside of that lived experience has been indispensable. I’m looking to explore the topic more with them. I’m especially excited to move forward with the next phase where we will hear from stakeholders inside the K-12 ecosystem.

Week 5

He always tells me that I can simply call him “Steve” but I have too much respect for him to oblige. Mr. Keefe is a role model of mine. As a young student, I knew I could come to him with any issue, and he was very interested in our future success. Success for him is that students would find happiness in their life. His warmhearted approach and patience set him apart from some of the other more intense teachers at the school. Although Mr. Keefe was an administrator he was very involved with the success of his students. His approach was to meet the student where they are in their own educational journey.

Me, Mr. Keefe, and my best friend Adam at our highschool graduation

“The most important thing to foster in students is social skills, sometimes they have nothing to do with education, but it’s the thing that is the most important.”

“When it comes to teaching, respect is paramount, don’t judge students on a daily basis, but on the long-term. You take little steps, use different ways to say things, show mutual respect for who they are and what they have been through.”

During the interview, I found out that Mr. Keefe struggled as a young student. He did not perform very well and in his words, traditional education taught him how to daydream. After high school, he enlisted in the military and it took him ten years to finish his bachelor's degree. The educational fire was lit, and he had an opportunity to get his master’s degree in Great Britain and then continued his studies in the US. I was surprised to find out about his own unconventional educational journey, which helped me better understand his empathic approach to struggling students.

Week 6 (exploratory research)

I am really happy with the exploratory research work we did leading up to our stage 2 presentation. Our secondary research consisted of gathering online resources, literature, and case studies into a shared Google worksheet. We diverged to explore different resources and ideas on our own. We then converged to share what we learned and talk about common themes.

Our primary research consisted of surveys and interviews with teachers, principals, students, and parents. Although I wish we had access to more students, parents, and teachers in the Santa Clara area, I really enjoyed talking with the students and principal of New Valley Continuation High School (NVCHS). NVCHS is a continuation school outside of the Santa Clara Unified School District. This diverse school has many challenges, including high amounts of youth trauma and poverty.

“This is a continuation high school serving and supporting youth that did not succeed in the traditional high school for a variety of reasons.” — Principal

The vision of NVCHS

To re-engage youth for success in high school, and prepare youth for success beyond high school in college, a CTE pathway, social & civic participation, and a healthy & happy life.

Learning about this school and talking with the students was truly enlightening. Many of the students we talked to had jobs outside of school (5 days a week). Many students would like to be working but are defacto caregivers for their younger siblings. And many students would like to take advantage of the Silicon Valley Career Technical Education program.

Week 7 🎉

For example, I have really enjoyed working with my team, and the MDes/MPS cohort, and it’s hard to imagine having many of the stimulating conversations we have outside of the class format. This week my team and I created a midterm recap of our research methods, and I’m proud of the good work we have done so far. I hope everyone will be able to stay in touch and I wish everyone well on their next adventure after this semester.

Prior to this week, I was worried about my next adventure, specifically my post-graduation career. After a tough week of weighing two different job offers and looking at what life might look like outside of Pittsburgh, I’m happy to say I was able to find some closure on that issue. I feel blessed to have such a supportive network of family and friends, that I have leaned on to help me think through some of these decisions.

I plan to spend more time back home with friends and family on Chautauqua Lake aka my “happy place”

Now that I know where I will be in May, I now feel better about what the summer will bring. I have found a path and plan to stay there for the time being, which will enable me to recapture some of the time I have lost with family and friends these past few years. I plan to spend the summer reconnecting with family, friends, and nature. Professionally, I will be working at the intersection of business strategy and design and I am excited about this. Next spring will most certainly be different, but I welcome any change and I hope that it will all be positive.

Week 8 🏃🏼‍♂️

Given the nature of this work, I wish we were able to meet face-to-face with students and do exploratory field research with them in their natural environments. I wanted to pick up on nonverbal communication such as eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, and posture, all of which we weren’t able to see since they kept their cameras off, and would be hard to gauge if their cameras were on. Without that contact, I find myself relying too much on my own experiences as a father, which is helpful but is not a universal representation of all parents.

Some things are perhaps more universal than others. For example, all parents might want their children to group up in a kind, welcoming, and nurturing world. I want my children to live in a world that respects their unique perspectives and celebrates their individual identity. I want my children to feel the awesome power and responsibility of freedom of choice (even if it terrifies me to my core). Overall, I want them to be a creator not a destructor.

Screen capture of my ideation session

We have all had the frustrating experience of miscommunication or not being able to verbalize one's emotional state. I think this is especially true with children and young adults. I see this with my own children. For example, I recently talked with my son (age 9) who was having a bad day. As an adult, I could pick up on his emotional state before I asked him to verbalize how he was feeling. This emotional intelligence is something I have built up over time, and something that comes naturally to me, perhaps because I’m a designer.

Emotional intelligence: the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one’s emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically.

Most miscommunication for children comes from not being able to read each other’s non-verbal cues. How could we make these cues more visible? The concept above talks about the importance of social and emotional learning. This concept was brought up over and over again as a skill that was most needed for a future-ready learner, and one that I’m trying to instill in my own children, and myself.

Week 9 (generative research)

Screen capture from one of our generative research persona building workshops

The students we talked with were between 15 and 18 years old. We used a combination of Zoom and Miro—a virtual whiteboard — to work with the students in real-time. Overall, the students were able to easily understand what was being asked of them and how to maneuver the objects on the board to create their unique persona.

We also asked the students to tell us what they were thinking as they worked and we took notes and annotated the board as they talked through the content. Having the students think out loud was extremely insightful. We learned so much about their concerns, hopes, and motivations just by listening to them talk through the process. I was also blown away by the thoughtfulness and candor of the students.

“My parents live to survive… Sometimes I think I can’t do it, since no one in the family did. I have to look for other people’s help because no one in the family knows enough.” — Nali (age 16)

I and very proud of our team and the work we have been able to accomplish together. At the beginning of the week, we were nervous we would not be able to get any students — especially first-generation immigrant students — to participate. I’m glad we were able to connect with these students. I have so much respect for them, their families, and the unique perspective they have and shared with us.

Workshop persona with Chad (Hong Kong 6:00 AM HKT— Pittsburgh 6:00 PM EST)

A personal highlight was interviewing an old friend, Chad. He has been living in Hong Kong for the past 6 years with his wife. He and his wife have a three-year-old son and we wanted to get his perspective as an ex-pat living in a foreign land and raising a child. His perspective, hopes, and fears were very similar to those folks coming to the US to establish a new life. Chad came to China for his career and has seriously thought about living in China long-term. However, Chad indicated that it would be easier to move back to the US, as international schools are expensive, and he’s worried about the political unrest and how safety.

We had Chad fill out the persona for a fictitious 15-year-old American boy (Finn Johnson) who is being raised by his ex-pat parents in Hong Kong. Finn’s main concern was that he would be “able to blend and mesh well in an international environment” and make friends. And so it seems that friendship, belonging, and acceptance are universal hopes that transcend all cultures and borders.

Week 10 🤔

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.”— Socrates

This week my team further synthesized our persona work and started to develop concepts based on key ideas. A few thoughts surfaced during this process that got me thinking about the true purpose of education. Are we merely “checking boxes” to satisfying state requirements? Or is education about gaining marketable skills that will lead to a lucrative career? Can education serve a higher purpose?

I think education is the process of facilitating learning, which is closer to its original meaning and intent. One is meant to acquire not only skills, and knowledge but also morals and values through the educational process.

Formal K-12 education is usually divided into phases such as kindergarten, primary school, middle school, and high school. Then students set their sights on higher education, and more commonly now, graduate school. After all of those boxes are checked they can start living their life the way they want to, right?

I recently encountered an inspirational speech from the late philosopher Alan Watts that puts this journey into perspective.

“Alan Watts — ‘Time’ from Eastern Wisdom and Modern Life”

Is modern education just filling empty vessels? Is the “factory educational model” what we want for our children or would we rather be kindling a flame for knowledge and exploration instead?

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life. The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of twentieth-century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”— Ellwood P. Cubberley, one of this century’s most influential school reformers, in his 1916 treatise, Public School Administration

Two of my favorite self-directed scholars and thinkers are Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain. Twain famously quipped, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” There are manly notable autodidacts throughout world history, many of which have included people who have been partially or wholly self-taught. A more modern example would be Steve Jobs, a college dropout who had a laser focus and ability to connect previously unconnected ideas and draw meaning from them in new ways. Is there a place for self-directed learning formal education? I think so.

Week 11

How might we enhance school engagement for students from immigrant families and support them to develop a sense of personal and interpersonal agency so they feel confident in facing future challenges?

Illustration source: (Thanks, Stef!)

The above concept speaks to the need to create something that will help facilitate connections with peers and help improve interpersonal skills. Being a father I can attest to the importance of social-emotional development. During our research, we have found that being future-ready means building the below three capabilities;

Emotional Intelligence: Being aware of one’s emotions and able to regulate them accordingly

Self Agency: Feeling of control over one’s own actions and their consequences

Network of Support: Having strong interpersonal connections that can provide support

Lastly, I really enjoyed hearing from Arnold Wasserman, a CMU alum and consultant for innovation and strategy and a pioneer in the field of human-centered design. After showing Arnold our process work and problem statement, he suggested that we might want to add/explore how students could develop metacognitive capacities. This is something I would like to learn more about and include in our concepts.

I was also inspired by Arnold’s paper, LEARN! 2050: How We Transformed America’s Learning System. Arnold sees the educational model of the future as a “model of learning in which students no longer go to school — school goes to students.” He goes on to say that in the future, “learning is continuous, ubiquitous, embedded and aligned with economic and social goals.” He goes on to say that learning is the “crucial foundation of a life of equity, justice, health, creative opportunity, and sustainable prosperity for all.” I wholeheartedly agree.

Week 12 (evaluative research)

Given our limitations (time, resources, and access to participants) I was very impressed with the agility and resourcefulness of our time. In order to test our 4 storyboard concepts we each looked to our own network (classmates, friends, family, and professional contacts). Everyone we reached out to willingly gave us their time and energy to advance the project. I’m very grateful that we had such a supportive community to tap into.

To start, we conducted speed dating using our storyboards with 2 high school students, 3 post-K-12 students, one parent, and one K-12 educator. We synthesized their feedback to reconsider our design principles, and generate a new storyboard.

For me, I reached out to my niece who is a 15-year-old public school student in New York. This was a really rewarding (and yes awkward for her) experience. She was uncomfortable meeting with the entire group, so I called my sister and the three of us walked through the storyboard I had sent to her as Google presentation.

“I like that you can see feedback from the rest of the class so you don’t feel alone in your frustration.”

Hearing her candidly voice her joys and frustrations with the school, friends, and relationships was extremely helpful to hear as a designer, but hard to hear as her uncle. I was also a bit ashamed that this is the first time I had talked to her about her hopes, dreams, and plans for the future? I hope that this is the first of many conversations I have with her about this topic. I also hope that she sees me as a resource as she thinks about this overwhelming, yet exciting space.

Although it was nice to hear from classmates, friends, and family they were not our target participants (15 - 18-year-old students in Santa Clara that come from immigrant backgrounds). We wanted to get to the heart of our target user so we reached back out to our contact in Santa Clara. Our contact is a principal in a public school in the district and she responded almost immediately. She informed us that her students would not have time to meet with us, but perhaps we could send them a Google form to fill out asynchronously.

Miro board developed for our speed dating session

We quickly turned our Miro board into a progressive Google form and sent it to her to distribute to her students. Since then we have had over 50 students respond, which has been very insightful.

Screenshot showing some of the responses we received from the speed dating session about the concepts we created

I’m looking forward to taking these insights into the final concept development phase.

Week 13

Personally, I really enjoined my high school experience. I had a great group of friends. I played sports and was also active with the school newspaper. I had wonderful teachers that were fully invested in their students. I also went to a school with many opportunities to engage and explore things I was interested in. I know, especially after reading the response from the form, that not everyone has a favorable high school experience. Some of the onus is on the school but most of the pressures/pain points are from external sources (home, peers, community, and the world).

Screenshot of the coded responses

It was a privilege to hear from all of these students. They were candid about their frustrations, anxieties, and aspirations. In this case, the freedom of anonymity allowed them to share what they were really feeling. As I read through the responses I started to question my memory of high school. Did I feel this way when I was 15–18-years-old? Did I also have these struggles? Or am I looking back at my high school experience through rose-colored glasses?

Although I don’t know these students, I do care for them. I wish them every opportunity I had and more. I hope the world they live in now, and in the future, will be a kinder, wiser, and more thoughtful place. And if not, I hope they will be the change.

Week 14 🎉

FutureMe brand identity

FutureMe — Map it. Track it. Make you happen. FutureMe is a platform for students to plan for and achieve success, now and in the future by allowing them to become adaptive, agile, and future-ready life-long learners that are ready to thrive in society and beyond.

The “Me” in the wordmark is an outline, unfinished, ready, and open to being filled in. Being an outline, it can be filled with any content/object/image. We thought this was a nice metaphor for our students. The illustration on the right shows how that the artifact lives in both the digital and physical worlds, allowing the student to connect with each other to track and accomplish goals now and in the future.

Giving support to children/teens in this stage of their lives is critical to their future success. On a related note, my wife just received word that her application to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) has been approved. CASA volunteers are advocates for abused or neglected children. Their motto is “Lift up a child’s voice.” A recent program that they launched is seeking to address foster children who “age out of the system” and might not be able to see a path forward for success. All children need a positive support system, and a vision for the future, but some simply do not have that option. I’m encouraged that our artifact is seeking to address this important issue in a small way.

Week 15 (reflect and communicate) 👏

Weekly team meeting

I was worried about what it might be like as we embarked on this semester-long studio project together, yet apart. Would we be able to communicate well just using digital tools like Slack and Zoom? Last semester, my team consisted of students that I have met in person. We had a relationship already. Apart from the pure digital communication method we had to adopt due to COVID-19, we had to adapt to our various schedules and time zones differences. For example, Yueru was connecting with us from China, which is a 12-hour difference. We mostly met during early morning or late at night.

Even with all of the logistics working against us, we were able to create something meaningful. I credit this to establishing a meeting schedule early on in the process. We held weekly standing meetings on Saturdays and check-ins throughout the week. We also trusted each other to do the work we said we would, asynchronously. Lastly, we developed an open communication style and made and effort to share our thoughts freely and often.

Overall, I’m proud of the work we were able to create together. Our final prototype and presentation were well-recieved. I am also happy with the various design research methods we tried and documented.

Lastly, I know that the final studio course has a reputation of being challenging in “normal” times, and yes, it lived up to that reputation, plus some in these abnormal times. However, I think were all the better for having endured and persevered. C.S. Lewis said that “hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” Throught the last year I have been so impressed with my cohort. The creativity and perservance I have seen has been an inspiration to me, and I know that each of them is destined to leave CMU prepared to do extraordinary things.


Graduate Student, Carnegie Mellon University