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Why This Silicon Valley High School Let Students Design Its New Campus

A high school focused on design thinking has teamed up with the Oracle Education Foundation to take 21st century learning to the next level.

Northwest view of Design Tech High School at Oracle

[Photos: courtesy of Oracle]

When the founding freshman class arrived at d.tech, a public design thinking-focused charter high school in Silicon Valley, in fall 2014, the students discovered that their classrooms had been left unfinished—on purpose. Their first assignment: Design the learning spaces. By the second week of school, after taking a field trip and conducting behavioral research, they were buying furniture.

"Why would you solve a problem without knowing what people really need? It’s so intuitive," says founder and executive director Ken Montgomery, a former high school English teacher with a policy analysis PhD from Stanford. "That’s one of the reasons that design thinking has resonated in education."

The students didn’t know it at the time, but they would soon revisit that first assignment on a much grander scale. Back in May 2014, Montgomery and his team had impressed leaders at the Oracle Education Foundation, one of the technology giant’s philanthropic arms, during a daylong workshop organized by the foundation and led by a Stanford d.school facilitator.

"They blew us away," foundation director Colleen Cassity says of the d.tech educators, who participated alongside educators from other Bay Area high schools. "They were so committed to the [design thinking] process, and they spoke so much the same language that we did."

Oracle co-CEO Safra Catz shared Cassity’s enthusiasm. At the foundation’s annual holiday dinner in late 2013, held at the Rosewood Hotel’s Madera restaurant, Catz had surprised her board members by initiating a three-hour discussion about Oracle’s role in education. Cassity recalls Catz saying, "‘Everyone [in Washington, D.C.] talks about education, but I don’t see anybody doing anything. I want us to do something, and I want for our people to be involved.’"

Do something—but what? In the months that followed, the foundation team narrowed its focus to high school-level opportunities that would engage Oracle employees and their technology expertise. Catz and Cassity met in July to consider their options. "You know, I think we own that," Catz mused, as she stood at the window of her office and pointed toward an undeveloped parcel of land at Oracle headquarters in Redwood City. Why not, she and Cassity wondered, turn the lot into a permanent home for d.tech, which had been sharing space with Mills High School in nearby Millbrae?

That vision is now coming to life. Oracle broke ground on d.tech’s new 64,000-square foot campus last month, after months of design and development in partnership with employees, parents, students, and teachers. By next fall, the completed building will be ready to house 550 students and 30 faculty.

As with d.tech’s first location, students played a central role in the process. "We wanted open spaces where you’d be able to focus but also collaborate," says Whitney Wisnom, 16. She and the other students involved in the planning also emphasized the importance of modular spaces and brightly colored walls, an echo of the bold paint (orange, turquoise) that d.tech’s teachers had added to their original classrooms.

DES Architects + Engineers, which led the project, won over Wisnom and her peers by practicing the same design thinking principles that they had been taught. Step one: Empathize. "They saw us first, as opposed to the physical building," she says.

The final design groups classrooms into neighborhoods, each one opening off of a long hallway that will serve as the school’s main traffic corridor and connecting thread. It also incorporates free-form spaces, outfitted with sofas, which encourage students to work comfortably on their own. In a two-story "garage," students will have access to prototyping tools like 3D printers and laser cutters, as well as graphic design and video production equipment.

Hands-on lessons in the garage will complement the personalized learning pathways that d.tech students follow in their core subjects, using online modules. Students move through the digital lessons at their own pace, with coaching from teachers and verification that they're grasping the concepts.

Design thinking, the heart of the school’s ethos and methodology, reappears in the regular group projects that students complete. The d.tech version of the process is in keeping with classic design thinking, with one notable exception. At the d.school, instructors have to spend time helping the grown-up participants turn off their internal "editors," the voices saying that an idea isn’t practical, or economical. At d.tech, Montgomery says, teachers have to do the reverse. "With kids, you have to almost do the opposite, and wrap [the challenge] a little more in reality," he says. "We focus more on the implementation, whereas the d.school has to focus on bringing out the wild ideas."

D.tech is the first example of a technology company sharing real estate with a U.S. high school, but it is far from the only example of business involvement in K-12 education. IBM, for example, has worked in partnership with educators to develop an innovative model called P-TECH that offers students a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, plus the option for high performers to move straight into entry-level technology jobs at partner corporations. There are now over three dozen high schools following in the footsteps of the original P-TECH (which stands for Pathways in Technology Early College High School), located in Brooklyn.

Critics question whether employers and education should be so tightly intertwined. But in the near term it’s hard to argue with efforts to improve an educational system that is in many cases failing to turn out high school graduates at all, let alone train them for relevant 21st-century careers.

"We have wonderful jobs here at Oracle and not enough people graduating here in the United States to fill them," Cassity says. "Employers are hungry for young people with creative confidence and technical acumen."

Montgomery stands by the partnership. "Oracle made it clear from the start they’re not opening a school, they’re not running a school," he says. "They’re nurturing and housing the school, obviously, but we still have full autonomy."

Oracle, d.tech’s largest philanthropic backer, is not the school’s only source of funds. Other supporters include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, via the Next Generation Learning Challenges initiative.

Oracle employees, who have already contributed over 3,300 volunteer hours at d.tech in its current location, will have even more opportunities to mentor and help develop curriculum when the new campus opens. In particular, Cassity hopes to expand on and formalize the design thinking workshops that volunteers have contributed to; one challenge, for example, involves designing a new wearable technology.

Cassity has high hopes for d.tech and is considering the possibility of expanding the model of colocated school and office to other Oracle campuses. She has already identified five communities that would meet the foundation’s criteria, which includes employees who have the skill sets to serve as volunteers and lead technology-oriented workshops.

"One of the primary goals is demystifying technology for young people. But not only that—to enable them to become the future innovators," she says. "We want to promote this kind of thinking more broadly."

For students like Wisnom, d.tech has already had an impact. "I was used to the bell ringing, going to class," she says of her middle school experience. Design thinking required an entirely different mindset, pushing her to embrace new challenges like conducting user interviews. "I’d never done anything like it," she says. "It was hard for me to adjust and be open. I was really shy."

Now, the high school junior is speaking up in meetings with senior architects, serving as a coach in d.tech workshops, and aiming for a career as an engineer.

"We all cared so much and wanted it to be a cool school for the incoming d.tech students, not just ourselves," she says. And she plans to savor the moment: "I can’t wait to spend my senior year there and be in a school that I designed."

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