Project EMAR

March 4, 2018

Launching the Design Challenge at Oakland High School

Nicole Alvarez

A blog by Chelsea Galvez & Fadumo Abdirahman

Getting started at Oakland High School

Meeting a classroom of students for the first time is always a mixed feeling of nervous anticipation and excitement, but the warm welcome to Oakland Alternative High School was very memorable! The teacher we are working with, Bill Sibbers, has a unique tradition of getting together in the morning to brainstorm before diving deep into the day’s agenda. This team meeting allowed us to get to know the students. In a roundtable-like fashion, we introduced our team and learned each student’s name and experience with technology and design. Being able to connect the way we did definitely helped everyone to open up and have great experiences from that day forward.

About Oakland High School

Oakland High School is a small school with an alternative schedule, located near downtown Tacoma, WA. It has around 230 students enrolled from grades 8 to 12. It was founded in 1912. The school focuses on helping students succeed in an alternative high school setting.

Our Team

From Computer Science to Communications, introverts to extroverts, our team brings a blend of backgrounds and styles to the classroom. We hope our variety in learning and teaching styles gives the students a chance to find someone to connect to and open up their space of learning.


Identifying Stress

Because human centered design was still a relatively new concept until that day, the students were still a bit uncertain about carrying out the research and interviewing process. They talked amongst themselves and with other groups. The pace and energy picked up once we all got together to discuss their ideas and discoveries.

Some students mentioned how their moms or families helped them cope with stress. Others talked about how music was a helpful way to distract themselves from stress or to connect to their emotions. We spent time going back and forth about our ways of relieving stress. Students began to dive fully into the conversation, relating with one another from across the room. Finally in full swing, we decide to pinpoint the main points from our conversation.

Combining all the students’ ideas, we wrote down the stressors that affect their lives and what they personally do to cope with it. The students had a multitude of ideas, and a lot of the students were able to speak up and participate in the discussion.


Paper and Ink

We introduced empathy mapping and affinity diagramming to help students with brainstorming. The students used a worksheet to do empathy mapping and storyboarding, and sticky notes for affinity diagramming. Within their group, the students discussed the features of their robot and grouped their features into separate columns.

We like to encourage each student to be as creative as possible, so they drew their individual robot prototype with features in helping manage teen stress.  Whenever we asked a student about their prototype ideas, they happily shared the unique characteristics of their robot.

“Would you want it to have a face?” one of our team members asked one of the groups. The students talked with one another, trying to figure out the logistics of their robot. We went around and helped the students pose questions surrounding their prototype.

Physical Prototyping

The students worked on several robots, replicating individual drawings or combining the whole group’s idea. Because this phase was hands-on, the students got really engaged with searching for the right materials for their prototype’s looks and features. We made sure that the students understood the purpose of the prototype and are able to identify the robot’s actions in managing teen stress. Because the activity time didn’t seem to be enough, the students will continue prototyping on their other class days. This also gives them enough time to wait for their shopping list of materials to arrive for their next prototyping activity!

Robot Designs

Based on the research and ideation phase in which we discussed teen stress and what robots can do to help relieve stress, here are the outstanding robot features the students incorporated in their designs. We observed several similarities among the robot designs across all the student groups:

  • Grades  – Academic life is always stressful! One robot feature can help with viewing grades, helping complete homework and tutoring.
  • Enjoyment – Through different interfaces, the robots are able to provide enjoyment through games, music or other fun features. One robot has two speakers in the shape of cheeks and a smile; another has ports in their body to allow music to play through headphones. There is a robot that allows the user to play games on its screen and act much like a phone with different applications installed. There is also another robot that has a front-facing camera, carrying props in its body to act like a photo booth.
  • Mobile phones – Phones are an important part of the students’ lives. This inspiration can be seen through the design of their interfaces and the features of applications the user can use. Several robots also allow a space in their body for charging phones.
  • Food – Students love their snacks. A majority of the robots have the capability to carry and dispense snacks and beverages. One robot can even make you tea while you relax!
  • Appearance – Teens prototyped robots of every size and shape. There was a small rectangular robot made to look silly, a robot whose face looks like a phone screen, a large pink robot with a keyboard to input data in its screen, a robot that looks like a tank, and a robot that is an animal plush. They also had varying surface textures and firmness.

What We Learned

  • Class size and attendance can fluctuate, so it’s important that there is a collective record of the activities and designs that were made from previous visits.
  • In each activity, half of the students were new; students are not actively consistent with class attendance. So we have to make sure that we are able to guide them and answer any questions as much as possible. Being grouped with classmates who have joined before will help students to catch up to the current phase.
  • Music was an essential part of their enjoyment during the prototyping phase, thanks to team member Fadumo who created a customized music playlist on Spotify just for the students at Oakland!
  • It helps to encourage and ask the students questions about their robot and their process, to help them fulfill their robots’ goal to manage teen stress in their school.
  • Encouraging the students to participate at the beginning of every visit set the tone and made them more likely to engage throughout the end of the process.

What’s Next? Testing!

We can’t wait to see the completed prototypes of the students of Oakland High School! The students are continuing to work on their prototypes. On our next visit, we will be getting ready to conduct testing on the prototypes and make changes based on feedback.

Stay tuned for more fascinating updates from our remaining high schools!