Educating the next generation to solve complex health problems through design thinking

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Kids Designing For Kids

Like many of the incredible connections I have made in recent years, the relationship with Northfield Community Middle School (NCMS) in Northfield, New Jersey, started on Twitter. Dr. Pamela Moran (@pammoran), Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools and a leader in innovation in education, saw that we were both doing some pretty cool stuff involving design and education and made the connection. Soon after, we were invited to visit NCMS by Principal Glenn Robins (@glennr1809), and Digital Shop STEAM teacher, Kevin Jarrett (@kjarrett). We at JeffDESIGN knew they had something special going on, but once we saw it in action, we realized that they were truly remarkable.

Before even walking into a classroom, the first thing I noticed when I got to NCMS were the white boards lining the hall and a cell phone charging station. Wait, the kids can use their cell phones and you let them draw on the walls? I asked. As the tour progressed, it started to become clear that at NCMS, they thought first about creating the best possible learning environment for their students, focusing on what the kids CAN do, and less about what they should not be doing. Their goal was the education of “life ready” students, per Glenn Robins, students who are engaged in their education and acquire the skills needed to become lifelong learners. Part of that meant allowing students to set their own boundaries and give them the freedom and respect to be independently motivated, creative, learners.

As we crossed the threshold into Kevin Jarretts Digital Shop, we were greeted by the words “CARE THINK DESIGN ACT” writ large in vinyl on the whiteboard paint wall while groups of students worked busily on various projects around the room. 3D printers whirred away on one side of the room, on the other side a full video production studio, and all around the walls were decorated with past projects and prototypes. The students, who politely greeted us then quickly got back to work, were used to a continuous stream of visitors who wanted to see the magic in action. One student showed us a video game he had made using an open source program, another was designing Playdough instrument using MakeyMakey, another creating a LittleBits pressure sensing alarm, another 3D printing railroad tracks for a transportation project she was working on. As I turned wide eyed to Kevin, about to ask how all of this was possible, he already knew what I was gonna say and gestured to the students. These were the students’ projects, ideas, and passions. They created their own learning experiences, Kevin just gave them the tools and support to do so. Mind blown.

I thought we were visiting NCMS just to see what they were up to, but we were learning from the second we walked into the building to the second we left. Before saying goodbye to the students, we asked them if they would be willing to come teach our medical students about design and prototyping. Imagine that, 7th graders teaching medical students about 3D printing!? It says a lot about NCMS, and a lot about how innovative we are (or are not) in healthcare. The particularly bright student who has been 3D printing railroad tracks, saw not a single iota of irony in such a request, and matter of factly offered up her services to come and teach at the university. I wanted to take her up on that offer.

Jump forward a few weeks, and we met Glenn and Kevin in Philadelphia to talk about how we could bring our respective students together. They were working on design capstone projects to end the year in Digital Shop and thought it could be a good opportunity for us to collaborate. Their 8th grade class would be designing E-nable 3D printed prosthetic arms. Their 6th grade class were going to be designing accessibility solutions for a wheelchair bound teacher. They still needed a project for their 7th grade class and were hoping to make it a true design experience that, like their other projects, was based around a real world problem.

Through ideation, we stumbled upon a problem we encounter frequently in clinical practice, which is making the hospital experience more pleasant for children. No easy task. So we thought, what if we challenged the 7th grade students to design solutions to make the hospital experience less scary for kids? Who would know better than kids what it feels like to be in an unfamiliar health care environment? This was real problem we encounter everyday when caring for children so we decided that we would carry the best projects forward to fully developed prototypes. To bring our students together, we decided to make the project all the more interesting by having the NCMS and JeffDESIGN students work together to fully develop the best projects. The students would be designing for real patients, and like the other capstones, it would be much more than just an educational exercise. It was an audacious plan, especially since NCMS is an hours drive away from Jefferson in Philadelphia, but it was going to be amazing, and we were gonna make it work.

To support the project we needed subject matter experts for the health care perspective and I was lucky enough to convince our Child Life Specialist, Laura Kenny, Clinical Charge Nurse, Krista Taylor, and Director of Pediatrics, Dr. Amanda Micucio to join us as the Jefferson team for this endeavour. One of the first challenges we encountered was how to allow an entire 7th grade class to develop an empathetic viewpoint for the problem we were solving for. We then filmed a video titled “Vital Signs” on the pediatric floor to help the students understand what it feels like to be in the hospital from a childs points of view. We also filmed a student interviewing Dr. Micucio so that the students could get a feel for the problems from the point of view of the physician. To kick off the first day of the design challenge, Dr. Bon Ku, Director of JeffDESIGN, Laura, Krista, and Myself all piled into a car and drove to NCMS armed with medical supplies to show the students and answer questions. We recorded that interaction so that the other 5 classes could watch later.

Vital Signs: An Exercise in Empathy

For the next 5 weeks, as Kevin guided the students through the ideation and prototyping phase, our team had weekly Google Hangouts with the class where the students discussed their prototypes with us and received feedback from the Jefferson team. For the last 5 weeks of the class, the students prepared presentations and filmed “Shark Tank” style pitch videos to demonstrate their prototypes. The Jefferson team reviewed these videos each week and rated each one based on innovativeness, prototype quality, realization possibility, functionality, emotional content, and potential impact. It was extremely difficult choosing the top projects as so many of them were really incredible ideas.

Pitch video supercut

On the day of the announcement, the students were anxious to hear the results that would be announced on the school PA. The 10 top projects were recognized, 1 student was recognized for best presentation, and the top 3 finalists would be invited to campus present to a panel of Thomas Jefferson University Hospital leadership. It was an exciting opportunity for the students but also an incredibly disappointing one, as Kevin Jarrett explained, in life everyone can’t be a winner, but it was none the less heartbreaking to see their disappointment when teams found out they didn’t win. This ‘loss’ didn’t stop one team, who strongly believed that their project had winning potential and independently sought out another hospital for their product. They contacted Shore Memorial Hospital and were invited to present their idea there. An amazing example of independent motivation and perseverance, in an article written about these talented young women Kevin stated, “this was all them, isn’t that what real life is all about?”

this was all them, isn’t that what real life is all about
— Kevin Jarrett

On to the big day, a yellow school bus transported the three winning teams and their family members to Jefferson for the presentations. The students arrived ready to present, with prototypes in tow, and newly polished presentations. In attendance was a panel of Jefferson leadership representing our pediatrics, technology, and innovation departments who would give feedback to the students after each presentation. Also in attendance were the JeffDESIGN interns who would be helping the students realize their projects.

When the time came for the event, the students got up in front of a packed room and delivered three incredibly professional presentations to a room full of doctors, nurses, executives, and family members. This was an audience that could have tripped up an experienced presenter, but the students seemed unconcerned with the crowd. They were there to discuss something they cared about and their only concern was getting their message across to the audience. It was beautiful to watch, these students were fully invested in their products and nothing could stand in their way. As one student ran through a functional prototype of her app, My Hospital Buddy, Jefferson’s VP of Technology, Innovation, and Consumer Experience, Neil Gomes, turned to his staff at the back of the room and chided them for implying that app development was hard. He described the students as 'noticers', those whom recognize problems and act to do something about them. When we presented the 3 finalist teams with custom designed 3D printed trophies, they dwelled on the win for all of ten seconds before asking when they would start working on their prototypes with the interns. These kids were a force of pure resolve and they would not be content until their products became real and were in the hands of patients.

After the event was over, we took the students and their families on a tour of campus. Each family member thanked me for organizing this unique opportunity for their children, and each time all I could do was thank them for allowing me to get to work with and learn from their extraordinary children. Most healthcare institutions conduct important community outreach, however it is usually in the framework of offering a service to the community. I firmly believe that KDFK is an example of a community ‘partnership’ where both parties benefit and at the end both groups are better off for having had the interaction. Programs like KDFK should be the norm, and not the ‘innovative exception’, and we at JeffDESIGN are continuously working to make innovation the new norm.

For even more detail about Kids Designing for Kids, check out these news links about the project. Also stay tuned on Design Enlightened Clinician for updates on the project as it moves forward!

NCMS Visited by Thomas Jefferson University Medical School

Persistence pays off for Northfield students - Shore News Today

Northfield students design inventive help for kids in hospital - Press of Atlantic City

Northfield students shine at Jefferson Hospital with kids helping kids - Shore News Today

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