By Caroline Curtis
A few weeks ago, all of Collegiate School’s eighth grade class participated in Envision Richmond, a design thinking program created by Collegiate to introduce the eighth grade students to the Richmond community outside of Collegiate and to teach them about serving the area around them. Envision Richmond’s goal is “for students to get out into the community and get out of the traditional classroom and learn about the local issues around [the Richmond area],” stated Middle School humanities teacher and Envision Richmond Coordinator Laurie Shadowen.
During the week of October 16-20, the eighth graders were very busy. They had five full days dedicated to problem-solving and left the week having gained many instrumental tools in their daily lives, such as communication and collaboration. They were broken up into thirteen groups of approximately ten students and then placed under a broad topic. These broad topics were: Bikes in Richmond, Childhood Hunger, Education/Literacy, First Responders, Food Deserts, Foster Care, Green Spaces, Homelessness, Immigration and Refugees, Medical Care (Pediatrics), Military, People with Intellectual/Developmental Disabilities and Teens and Mental Health. Two weeks prior to Envision Richmond, each student was sent an email regarding these groups and asked to rank them, so everybody received a topic they were fairly interested in.
On Monday, the eighth grade was split into halves and visited two different sites and then rotated locations that afternoon. They visited the Downtown Richmond YMCA to listen to Jon Lugbill from Sports Backers talk about his empowering rafting experience. Sports Backers is a Richmond community organization that encourages people throughout the community to live actively and improve their health. After hearing Lugbill speak, they began the first stage of their design thinking process. The design thinking plan for the week gave the students “a ‘plan’ of how [they] were going to create the project,” as described Will N. (’22). This preliminary stage included brainstorming questions to ask the people in need at each of the sites that they would be visiting the next day. The other activity on Monday was rafting in the James River. Scotty R. (’22) said that he enjoyed this experience because “it was a great bonding experience.”
On Tuesday, all of the groups went to their respective sites to learn about the relevant issues and, more importantly, talk to the people affected by their area of focus. They spent the morning talking to people and taking note of the details that they thought may be important as they continued their process. Maggie B. (’22) said that her experience at Home Again enabled her to “learn so much more about the poorer part of our community.” Lunch and the afternoon were spent at the law firm of Troutman Sanders. During lunch, they began to talk about what they discovered and prepared for their afternoon of the second stage of design thinking. Each topic’s large group of ten split into two smaller groups of about five and began this second stage. The goal of the second stage was to create their “user”—a generalized person affected by the issue they are covering.
Wednesday was a day full of problem-solving. The students went to the Visual Arts Center of Richmond in the morning, where they would spend their time thinking of possible solutions for their user’s issue. After they ate lunch and came up with one specific solution, they went back to Collegiate, where each group came up with a prototype and presented it to their classmates.
On Thursday morning, all of the eighth grade students came over to the Upper School’s Academic Commons, where they would listen to three respective presentations. The first was about creating a logo and the branding for their solution, presented by Elizabeth Smartt and Rachel Everett. The second presentation covered the financial aspects of funding their solution; Wortie Ferrell from Davenport & Company spoke about these aspects. The final speaker was Christine Branin; she focused on the actual presentation of the solution. After each of the presentations, the students were given time to perfect the covered aspect of their solution. Sam F. (’22) described this morning as the “the best part of the week.” They had a nice, relaxing lunch before returning to their groups, where they practiced and perfected their presentations for Friday.
Friday was the final day of Envision Richmond and arguably the most important one. Each group presented their solution to a panel of Richmond community leaders. These leaders included the site coordinators at each place the students visited. All of the hard work that each student put in over the course of the week was displayed on Friday as the leaders were blown away by their ideas. In particular, Matthew Morrison, the Annual Fund Management Specialist at Virginia Supportive Housing, was extremely impressed by each group’s solution: “The presentations were quite creative, and overall, fairly realistic to the costs and challenges of the issues students were trying to address. I liked that no two groups were really trying to tackle the same subject or copying each other, but instead there was a wide diversity of ideas on how to make Richmond a healthier community overall.”
The Healing Hands House was the solution created by one of the small groups tackling Homelessness. This group’s solution was “to create a specialized group home that is made to keep siblings in the foster care system together,” stated Emani H. (22′), a member of this group. The Healing Hands House is only one example of the numerous creative solutions created by the eighth graders.
Although the format of Envision Richmond has changed over the years, the ideas and goals have remained the same. The first two years of the program included only a select group of 20 eighth graders for participation, but for the past three years, the whole eighth grade student body is included. “We’re learning more about the process and are trying to make it more of a meaningful experience for the students,” said part-time facilitator for the program and Middle School Spanish teacher and advisor Danielle Guzman. And since its creation, the second phase has been added. Phase Two will transpire in the spring of this school year and will give the students a second chance to get together in their groups and tackle their issue. Only this time, it is hands on. This spring, the students will actually go out into the community and make a difference for those affected by the specific issue. They are given the opportunity to apply for a grant and may use that money to buy supplies to help support those in need. Although the eighth graders do not know much about it yet, they are already very excited: “I am so excited for the second half of Envision Richmond because we can do more in the community and meet more nice people affected by our local issues,” said Reynolds H. (’22).
Design thinking was an integral part of the week for the students; each day they were introduced to a new step of the process to help them come up with specific solutions. Sam F. (’22) described how the process works: “Instead of having a clear answer to a problem like we usually get in school, the Envision Richmond process let your group solve a problem by the way your group perceived it. The whole week encouraged innovative thinking, and being able to develop your ideas instead going off your first idea.” Some students, like Catherine H. (’22), found it surprising how much they enjoyed design thinking: “Surprisingly, I loved the speed of the design thinking process… I wouldn’t wish Envision Richmond to operate at any other tempo. I now am better under pressure, and trivial decisions regarding things like ice cream flavors or what to wear to school don’t frazzle me as much.”
The eighth graders learned valuable lessons from the week and acquired life skills that will help them as they move forward. They learned little parts about themselves and the Richmond community as a whole. Parker B. (’22) emphasized tools she earned throughout the week and how she will use them later in her life: “I really gained the life skill of empathy because I really put myself into a person who struggles with homelessness’s shoes. It helped me assess situations and come up with creative solutions that I will definitely use as I grow older.”
Envision Richmond has now become an integral part of the Collegiate Middle School experience and provides students with newfound tools to help them in the future. Lisa Blair Bell, Nurse Manager at Bon Secours Pediatric Specialty, expressed her delight that Collegiate exposes its students to the Richmond community: “I feel that is a great way to be exposed to all the wonderful things that are happening around Richmond. It also allows for students to see a true picture of the needs of the Richmond community.” Shadowen is “just so proud to see the progress our students make from the first day of Envision Richmond when they’re not sure what design thinking is all about to the last day when they’re confidently presenting creative solutions about local issues to community leaders—these eighth graders are budding change makers!”
All photos by James Dickinson.