Good Thinking: Empathy at the heart of high school’s Design Thinking curriculum

By Christina Gray

Imagine a world where empathy was a superpower that generated creative and successful solutions to human problems.

Junipero Serra High School students can not only imagine that world but are invited into it with the Design-Led Innovation Program. The interdisciplinary course of study within the Innovation, Information and Technology department introduces students to the foundational principles of “Design Thinking.” The concept is a human-centered approach to innovation that starts with gaining empathy for another’s needs.

“Oftentimes, when we talk about creative problem-solving, we start by thinking about ourselves,” said Rita Lee, assistant principal of academic administration. “We tend to think about what we are going to do to solve a problem, what would I want or need. But here, it’s not about us; it’s about the person you’re trying to help.”

Lee is the architect of the Design Thinking process central to the course introduced six years ago at the all-boys San Mateo high school. Her students have an opportunity to become innovators, to find solutions to real-world problems that draw on logic, imagination, intuition and systematic reason and to explore possibilities that improve the lives of others.

Other courses in the Design-Led Innovation Program include business and marketing, computer programming, app development and virtual enterprise.

Design Thinking expressly fits Serra’s mission as a Catholic school.

“The idea is that kids will set in motion a project of their own design, combining things that fascinate them with feelings about their capabilities to make a difference in the lives of others,” said Rushton Hurley, a consultant with a passion for digital media in the classroom and Lee’s co-teaching partner for Design Thinking courses.

“As I see it, we have this really nice intersection of self-directed learning, and valuing the potential that each of us has to serve others,” said Hurley.

The one-semester class is an elective that introduces students to the five stages of the design thinking process — empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. With the emphasis on empathy, students observe how different perspectives may lead to very different design problems and solutions. Design Thinking students often go on to take Creative Solutions for the Global Good, an associated yearlong course culminating in a project of the student’s choice that is focused on service and community. Students are supported by mentors, overcome challenges and learn to tell their “story” as they showcase their work to an international audience at the end of the school year.

Advanced Solutions for the Global Good is a second yearlong course that allows students who took the Creative Solutions class to continue developing their project or to apply their skills to a new project.

Serra senior Michael Khoury’s project was sparked during the pandemic. He learned chess in the early stages of the lockdown, developing a passion and proficiency for the game.

He soon began thinking about how to share chess with kids in high-need communities. Among other things, chess helps players develop strategic thinking and patience when faced with a challenge instead of just reacting.

He packed up his board and brought it to a youth center in the Tenderloin. Last year, he began teaching chess to students at Fiesta Gardens International School in San Mateo.

Class of 2021 graduate Matt Cerza presented his project to an audience of thousands at the annual conference of the International Society for Technology in Education in 2021. He was one of three students in the country invited to speak.

Cerza was volunteering at a senior center in Half Moon Bay, teaching the elderly how to send an email and avoid malware attacks when COVID-19 hit. Suddenly, the seniors were home, and many were alone. Cerza sought used laptop donations through social media, refurbished them to be “Zoom-ready” and delivered them to isolated and lonely elders.

Hurley said Cerza’s parents came up to him and Lee after the presentation and said, “He got this opportunity because of you.” No, Hurley said, “he learned to tell a story, which is a big part of Creative Solutions for the Global Good.”

Christina Gray is the lead writer for Catholic San Francisco.