It’s what the students want... Right?

This quarter at Stanford, I decided to take a course on education, because I know I want to make an impact on education, especially in STEM education. In the course, we have the opportunity to lead a weekly, hour-long, after-school program, for a small group of middle-schoolers with a few Stanford students (teachers) per group. Whenever I come back from a teaching Tuesday, I’m either bubbling or dull, depending on how the session went. Two weeks ago, I had one of my dull days.

Our group decided to create lava lamps, using vegetable oil, water, and food coloring, which would help us introduce students to liquid miscibility and density. In our idealistic view, we were going to transition and apply the lava lamp’s scientific principles to understand oil spills, which also involve oil and water. In the latter activity, we simulated an oil spill, with a tub of water and a boba straw (pipe) filled with vegetable oil (crude). Students were supposed to design and prototype solutions to remove the oil from the water. In the end, we hoped that students would see that miscibility and density, two seemingly simple concepts, help them understand larger, complex systems, such as oil spills. This highlighted one of my main goals at the time.

I wanted to show the students how to rigorously analyze events that happen in real life, whether catastrophic or mundane, with the tools they have at their disposal. Specifically, you don’t need to be a trained scientist, mathematician, or engineer to make conjectures about the underlying problems/principles of a situation. After my life as a student and human, I found that making connections creates a higher level of understanding, and makes concepts more interesting. I learned to rigorously and analytically engage with my environment, and it was awesome. However, I’m forcing my students to learn what I love about problem solving. While it is a useful skill, it might not be the one they needed, or even wanted, at that moment. Every student has different needs, which depend on their situation at school and home.

In the end, I didn’t think the activity was as successful as it could have been. When we asked the students about what we learned that day, nobody even mentioned oil spills.

“Lava lamps were my favorite part!”

“Oil and water don’t mix”

“Water is always on the bottom because of the density.”

“Food coloring doesn’t mix with oil… just the water.”

The students walked away with knowledge, so it wasn’t a total flop, but nobody even mentioned the implications of their knowledge. At this point, I realized I was pushing my agenda onto my students.

What are their needs? How do they like to learn? These were the very basic question a friend asked while I vented to her about that teaching session . I knew they liked to build things and I knew their favorite subjects, but I did not know something as basic as their needs as students. Some students need emotional support; some need academic; others just need more interesting problems. I felt overwhelmed. This is when design thinking really comes into play.

Who are my students? Answer: user profiles.

  1. Motivated students: students actively participate, question, and work. It is easy to love these students as a teacher, because they make life easy.
  2. Disengaged students: students are clearly inquisitive, but they don’t participate as much in the activity (for whatever reason). These students can transform to (1) with an activity that piques their interest
  3. Disinterested students: actively don’t participate, and, maybe, disrupt the classroom/group too. Whether you love them or you’re frustrated with them, they are your students, and you need to figure out how to enrich their experience.

What do they need?

Feel supported: everybody needs support, but what kind?

  • Family (emotional): things may be happening at home, so the student needs some constant, familial source of love and support.
  • Friend (emotional): just being their friend and mentor, of sorts, because many of their other needs are met.
  • Social (emotional): middle school is especially difficult, because puberty hits and it feels like you need to choose to focus on one of friends or academics.
  • Remedial (intellectual): practice using fundamental principles and learning them from a refreshing perspective by extending the classroom.
  • Advanced (intellectual): more interesting problems, revisit old problems with a new perspective, go beyond the classroom.
  • Pedagogical (intellectual): revisit their approach to learning, remind them that learning isn’t rote memorization, teach them about the growth mindset.

Feel powerful: confidence is a key to success in most areas of life

  • Emotional: student needs to have some control over their life, so show them how they can have redirect this need to constructive activities.
  • Intellectual: student needs to know that what they are learning is making them more powerful. Teach them that, with just a few principles, you can explain the world around you, and these skills are invaluable.
  • Physical: they want a dominant presence, or a leadership position on the project, or to be the loudest, etc.

This is just a sketch of the needs that I have thought of so far, which is by no means complete. Now, when I think about my students, I can see where they fall in these needs and profiles. When my group and I design an activity, we will strive to have all of this in mind and design something for the students. Make sure your activity will work well with everyone. Most importantly, I will work on not pushing my own agenda too aggressively, because I am here to serve the students, not myself. I didn’t think I would fall into the trap of not designing for my user, but I did and I am officially aware.