Making room for student voice in schools is imperative. But what if we were more intentional about the why, the what, and the how? What if we combined student voice with design thinking and then allowed students the same platform for improvement that we provide our adult groups? The student innovation team (SIT) concept does just that by applying the question, “How might we?” to the idea of ultimate student engagement.

SITs allow districts to leverage the voices and ingenious problem-solving ability of students. Inviting students to actively be a part of conversations and be engaged at the same level as adult stakeholders helps to break down barriers—students have the will and limitless lens to look both within and outside the box. Plus, by sharing the concepts of human-centered design (HCD) and design thinking with them, they gain a framework to help solve problems or identify pinch points in our school systems from an empathetic viewpoint while co-​designing the solutions that can build bridges.

What Are Student Innovation Teams?

What makes SITs different from, say, a student government? With SITs, teens notice, experience, or find their own problems or opportunities and become researchers—students are thus grounded in empathy to fully explore what they uncover. They are co-definers of the issue and co-designers of the solution versus being given a specific problem to solve. Both experiences are valuable, but the former reinforces the value and importance of the students’ ideas and gifts. Asking students to fully address what empathy means and having them experience it through interviewing other stakeholders with diverse and sometimes extreme perspectives teaches a number of skills. They learn and practice asking “why,” and by assuming a beginner’s mindset, sharing stories, and creating journey maps, students come to fully understand the end user’s point of view and how to define the work ahead.

The ultimate goal of SITs is to implement student prototypes and provide a framework for students to explore this linear-looking—yet often ambiguous—process. SITs elevate the students’ voices and give them opportunities to act as positive agents of change. It fosters leadership and character skills that support students’ growth in what is referred to as the four C’s—communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

Working in teams helps teens tackle real-world problems, accept critical feedback, and revise work based on the needs of others. As students collaborate with team members and present their findings to an authentic audience, they learn HCD in a real but safe way by discovering how to fail and iterate a crucial life skill. The process also allows students to turn the historically bad label of “failure” into “iteration” and teaches them how to persevere through adversity. If students do not have these important opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them, how can we expect them to tackle more complex problems and take on challenges as adults?

How Human-Centered Design Works

It’s important to note that SITs can take on different looks and formats. Much depends upon the comfort level of the adults to lead, the age of the students, and the time available to dedicate to the process. In 2016 at Minnetonka Public Schools, we invited students to be a part of the inaugural “student innovation team” in a letter that was sent home to all Minnetonka High School students and families in August. Principal Jeff Erickson introduced the program like this: “Innovation is a key part of how Minnetonka Schools operates, and this year we are creating a process and structure for student participation in the ideation and process. We want to provide you the opportunity to ask the question, ‘What if?’ ” We ran the program on a high school platform; it consisted of roughly 25 students in grades 9–12.

At its core, the SIT becomes a cross-section of HCD and student voice, with an emphasis on action. To that end, there are several ways to put a “sandbox” around how the SIT actually works. For example, you could have a student team use HCD processes to work through a problem/opportunity provided by administration/staff. In this situation, there could be multiple teams; however, they are all working on a solution to the provided problem (10–15 students per adult facilitator). A second option might have students identify problems/opportunities, but the adults choose the final path of ideation. In this situation, depending upon the developmental level of the students and the capacity of the facilitators, you could have multiple groups working on multiple issues, or multiple groups working on one issue. A third opportunity might have a student team control the identification of problems/opportunities and then use the HCD process. In this situation, there are typically multiple teams who simultaneously work on different problems/opportunities. Really, the ideas for using this approach can be limitless. For example, two high school teams in Stillwater, MN, have created a hybrid approach—combining staff and students on innovation teams.

Timeline and Considerations

The process of the SIT could start and end at any point in time. However, when trying to bookend the school year, consider sending parent notifications in August, using September to provide an introduction to HCD and team building, and using October to identify problems/opportunities and work on empathy. November and December provide a good time to begin prototyping, which allows you to gain feedback, retool, test, and iterate from January through the end of the year. Regardless of the timeline chosen, maintain an authentic audience with which to solve problems and share solutions.

If you’d like to involve middle level students in the SIT process along with high school students, consider holding the process after school so all can attend. Plus, staggering the day and time of the longer meetings may be worthwhile due to A/B schedules or other rotating classes. Consider combining SIT work with an established leadership group in the building, such as an Honor Society chapter or student council. SITs could also be embedded into multiple curricular areas. Students at this level are eager and ready to have their voices heard. Having strong leadership from staff who can provide a safe environment for these students to take risks, jump in, and make something happen is crucial. This model provides opportunity for students to engage in topics such as addressing bullying or depression, as well as pragmatic areas such as the lunchroom.

High school students tend to do well with some direct modeling at first and then being given the agility to move at their own pace, maintaining dates and/or timelines. Having a mentor or check-in person helps students remain on track and keeps prototypes moving forward. This is especially true when prototypes start to disrupt culture and students need a strong leader who can help them answer questions, keep momentum going, and offer support when obstacles arise.

Students at the high school level also benefit from some type of communication with their team. Group text messaging via the GroupMe app; Schoology, the social networking service and virtual learning environment; email; and other methods help teams stay connected as ideas arise.

Regardless of the grade level, if you’re using an application process, it is important to get a diverse group of students. Consider things such as grades, ideas of problems they feel need to be solved, why they have an interest, clubs/activities they already belong to, and staff recommendations.

The Final Goal

The ultimate goal for implementing SITs is for student prototypes to be selected and implemented. However, the targeted purpose is for students to both understand and apply the HCD process. By providing students a safe environment in which to be creative, take risks, experience vulnerability, and grow their courageous leadership, we see directly how they can influence meaningful and powerful change in K–12 environments.

SITs elevate the voice of students, give them opportunities to act as positive agents of change, and foster leadership and skills relevant to their lives, which are sought after in the world beyond school. The process allows students to develop their innovative mindset to tackle real-world problems, accept critical feedback, and revise work based on the needs of others. When engaging in this work, be cognizant of local business and organizational resources that might already use HCD. They can be strong partners and validate the work. Consider other schools to partner with that have similar needs. Find potential mentors and guest speakers, and consider outside groups that can provide feedback during prototyping.

SITs generate real-world experiences that are applicable to school issues and local, national, or international scenarios. Businesses, industries, and organizations use the HCD framework in their day-to-day operations. Engaging students in SITs provides opportunities for students to practice and hone the skills employers are asking for.

Robert McDowell, PhD, is the assistant superintendent at the Stillwater Area Public Schools in Stillwater, MN. Nicole Snedden is the innovation coordinator for Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnetonka, MN.