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Closing the digital divide: Middle school students propose a solution

Three eighth grade students in South Florida used design thinking to build a philanthropy with the goal of closing the digital divide in a rural farming area of their community

The class was intended to be an elective, a two day a week offering for middle school students in order to leverage student agency as part of their course selection.

I was first exposed to the idea of design thinking through involvement in the IB world back in 2011 as part of their MYP course requirements. This way of teaching and learning (which actually dates back to the 1960’s as an engineering method) is now all the rage, and a popular new tool for educators as it has been revived by Stanford’s “d.school” in order to encourage individuals to create and innovate. At the basis of this creation is a methodical process that is based on solving a problem that will satisfy the needs of an end user. In short, the method has five steps

  • Empathize

  • Define (a problem)

  • Ideate

  • Prototype

  • Test

Students in the Design Thinking (DT) class were charged with the task of identifying a user need and creating a plan to solve this need.

Coincidentally the problem identified back in October of 2019, has been at the center of Education these days as K-12 schools are immersed in an unplanned spotlight on digital equity and the digital divide due to COVID-19 happening not only in our country, but all over the world.

The Design Thinking problem these three students came up with was “How can we empower students who are from impoverished areas to solve problems using the design thinking method?” After all, the DT method teaches problem solving.

Their ideate stage included research about Hope Rural School. Hope Rural was started to support children of migrant workers who were not being offered the services they needed to succeed in the local community school.

As with most rural schools this school, set up as a non-profit organization has some, but not much technology.

The middle schooler's initiative, they hoped, would empower these students to grow up to become leaders and problem solvers in their community.

Technology for technology's sake does not change the quality of learning.

Connecting technology to authentic experiences does. They learned through class activities how the design thinking method initiates viable solutions to problems at hand.

They decided to start an “Idea Lab” at the school.

They would partner with pre-service students at Florida Atlantic University to write the curriculum that they would then record in the form of tutorial videos and pass on to the media specialist and volunteer software engineer who work with the students at Hope Rural school. Their plan included connecting entrepreneurs, engineers and other community mentors to the students through monthly Zoom sessions.

The students submitted a proposal to Palm Beach county’s Philanthropy Tank. Philanthropy Tank aims to match students with innovative ideas for improving their communities with Philanthropist Investors. Local students enter a competition where they pitch their ideas Shark Tank style in order to qualify for up to $15,000 in funding to realize their project.

The students' idea was accepted and they are now using their award of $13,500 to support the children of Hope Rural. The funds will be used not only to purchase robots and software, but also simple building supplies such as cardboard boxes, tape, wood, and lego blocks in order to inspire the children of Hope rural to become innovators and problem solvers through hands on authentic experiences. Their hope is to then expand the program to other schools in need.

It is with these types of innovative solutions which stem from our K-12 students that we can begin to see promise in the future of K-12 learning for all.

** There is an UPDATE TO THIS POST

The students at Hope Rural were sent home on March 13th, 2020 as all students due to COVID-19, but their at home learning experience is not that of others.

The students went home to families who are struggling migrant workers. WIFI is not an option at their home, neither is device ownership other than perhaps a phone.

Parents were asked to drive to the school once every two weeks to pick up paper packets with books and worksheets sealed in a Ziplock baggie. Teachers would prepare these packets and rotate collecting and distributing. Think about the teaching component? What if a student had a question? Most of the parents of these students have limited English skills,and most don't even have a high school education.

Sister Elizabeth Dunn, the loving kind director has gone out of her way to help the students. She even told families they could drive over to the school and sit in the parking lot to get WIFI (she called in some tech people to change the WIFI setup so it could be used in the parking lot).

Those virtual graduations we see and smile about on the news? Not happening for Hope school graduates. They'll have to wait until school starts again when they'll be gone from Hope school. There is no celebratory ending for these children.

I can only imagine the difference had they had access to devices and broadband. They are just a small example of what is happening all around us every day.


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