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Agency, Advocacy and Autonomy

By Dan Lenzen, director of design and innovation
The director of design and innovation highlights how the traits learned in D&I classes are beneficial in the future.
Annually around this time of year, I start reflecting on the students who are about to graduate from the Design and Innovation (D&I) program. Many of these seniors from the class of 2022 joined our program in seventh grade when the program was in its infancy. While I am proud they have gained the technical skills that landed them wonderful opportunities and partnerships nationally and globally, I am equally pleased they have developed traits that will serve them well regardless of their field in college and beyond. 

Here are three skills I see as key indicators of successful education in our program. 

1. Agency

As a cognitive scientist, I believe that our design and innovation program cultivates a sense of agency in our students. Psychologists define agency as the power/ability to influence or control one’s circumstances. As a young person, having opportunities to make choices is so important—perhaps this is why recess and free play are so beloved and essential to a child’s development. We blend that energy to create one’s own vision with tangible skills that students will use down the road.

Agency isn’t developed just by the act of building something. The projects must impact an individual, a group of people, an organization or a community. Through creating, collaborating and working for outside organizations, our students are treated as skilled experts. For example, our seventh– and eighth–graders worked with scientists from the La Jolla Institute for Immunology who needed custom pipettes and test tube holders. Through this collaboration, the students learned that they possessed engineering skills that the Ph.D.s did not have, and they could improve the environment for the scientists to be more efficient. The students were the experts in this situation.

This process shifts a student’s mindset from being a recipient to a contributor. They begin to look around their environment as agents of change and ask, “how could this be done better?” In the last couple of years, students in design and innovation published apps to streamline a way to better view the class schedule, created a product to eliminate the problem of messy tea bags and helped a scientist create a custom solution for maternal milk studies. It becomes a habit to think, “I can make that process more efficient,” “I can make that website more appealing,” or “I can build something that does what I need.” That is what agency looks like in young people.

2. Advocacy

Our seniors have embraced the contributor’s mindset. When our students see solutions to a problem, they are comfortable talking to the people in charge of it. They have contacted international manufacturers on their own. They have petitioned school leaders. They have pitched businesses to local experts for funding. They have cold-called companies asking for internships because they know their skills could be useful. And after enough tries, all of them successfully advocated for themselves this year. By pitching project after project, they master the art of promoting their potential. Our alumni, currently in fields as diverse as international politics and music, share that this practice has served them well in college and beyond. 

3. Autonomy

For a certain type of student, the most challenging part of joining our program can be the moments when they aren’t told what to do exactly. After years of receiving praise for following instructions, it can be a shock when there aren’t instructions but instead just some expectations.

Our seniors can now successfully embrace moments of uncertainty. They look around until they are inspired by something they observe. They conduct research, develop a plan for how they will differentiate, and know when to come to a D&I team member with a pitch for a project. They work alone or with partners for days or even weeks, only asking for supplies or advice. During that time, they teach themselves new skills, find workarounds for many problems, debug and problem solve as they go. The projects can be as simple as making a cutting board or as complex as a custom-built CNC machine.

We model our teaching role in the spirit of MIT Professor Seymour Papert: “Supporting children as they build their own intellectual structures with materials drawn from the surrounding culture.” 

After six years, this approach has shown us that we are not just building an array of technical skills but also a mindset that serves the students well no matter where the future takes them. The proof of its value is in these exceptional seniors.

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