This past summer in August I travelled to Ghana with Gurkaran to prototype a curriculum for teaching middle and high school low-income girls how to code and act on solving the challenges around them.
Thayer produced a video and published an article about our project, the video is included below. I've also included a reflection on our work written by Gurkaran.
’d say the most meaningful part of the experience for me was seeing glimpses of delight on the girl's faces as they worked through their design projects, especially in contrast to their blank stares early in our course. On the first day of class, the girls were so quiet when sharing their ideas with the class that even the person next to them could barely hear! Hilary and I made every effort to break the typical model of top-down and punishment driven rote learning the girls are accustomed to. We cheered on their failures, just as much as their successes. And soon, they were coming up with all sorts of creative ideas. Some of the particular interactions I remember-- one of our students, Aisha, the class clown / troublemaker, led the design of a covered cart to help street vendors easily transport and display their wares, and she did it all with scrap cardboard, half a garbage bag, and tape. When her team realized they urgently needed wheels for their prototype, Aisha snuck around behind the library, picked up someone's sandals, and cut out two circular pieces of rubber. She got in major trouble with the librarian, but it was a great laugh for everyone, and perfectly captured one of our design mantra's: Don't ask for permission, ask for forgiveness.
Design is a universal language. As adults, we obscure it in jargon with buzzwords like “lateral thinking”, “affordances”, “user segmentation”, and so on. But really, older designers are trying to relive the free-spiritedness, unfettered imagination, and curiosity of kids. Being a good designer is about rewinding the clock to when you were seven, and unleashing that infinite barrage of questions that your parents found “annoying” because the best answer they could come up with is “that’s just the way things are”. Our task was to help the girls unlearn the notion that asking questions is bad, and unlock the creative confidence that they already had. And when this clicked, magic started happening. A student, Patience, when on her way home from one of our first classes on building empathy through interviews, came across a young girl in rags, begging by the street. The day’s topic on her mind, Patience stopped to investigate. She learned that the girl was orphaned and homeless, and had no choice but to beg to feed herself. Patience connected the dots. She remembered having seen an orphanage near her home, so she enquired and eventually helped the homeless girl find shelter. These kinds of sparks of change made our project meaningful to me. We worked with 32 girls, encouraging them to think deeply about how they can leverage the resources they already have to solve the problems around them. They learned how to speak up and be confident in their capabilities. Maybe a few will go on and apply these lessons to take on issues in their communities. Maybe one will succeed. And that success will go on to inspire a hundred others to try. We did our best to start the ripple, and we're already seeing it propagate. If nothing else, one less girl will grow up suffering on the street.