(Summer ’17) Nushelle de Silva, G

Nushelle de Silva (G, Architecture)
Nushelle will spend the summer in Sri Lanka, working with at-risk, low income high school students to teach critical thinking, creativity, and collaborative problem solving skills, through Building Bridges, an initiative she founded in 2012 to foster self-expression and sustained dialogue for Sri Lanka’s diverse youth. She will be adapting design thinking methodologies to teach a ten-session program in two schools (one urban and one rural), while supporting the Building Bridges team in executing a visual arts workshop series running concurrently for middle-school students. Her goal for the summer is to map how increasingly popular problem-solving methods like design thinking can be effectively adapted as creative teaching tools for young people in South Asia.

Check back for her updates!

Part IV: Community Voice

Check out the guest post from Piranavan on the Building Bridges blog!

Part III: Holiday Camp in Kakkaiyankulam and Nattankandal

We did five days of workshops at Kakkaiyankulam, for almost 60 children from Grades 6-11. Two days of design thinking led by me (I’ve blogged about both days here and here), two days of visual arts, and one photography workshop led by Building Bridges, and a three-day drama workshop led by Mind Adventures, a theatre group I initiated a partnership with for the holiday workshop series. We also did four days of workshops at Nattankandal, for around 35 children from Grades 6-11. Two days of design thinking led by me (I’ve blogged about both days here and here) and two days of visual arts for Grades 6-7, and one three-day drama workshop for Grades 8-11 led by Mind Adventures. In addition, the BB team has posted blogs from their workshops on the website, and Mind Adventures has updates on their Facebook page, if you’d like to check them out!

Part II: Working in Lunawa

I wrote three posts on the Building Bridges blog on my experience working with the eighth-graders at the Uyana Junior School in Lunawa. The first post talks about all the twists and turns that led me to do a workshop in Lunawa, the second post talks about the second workshop, and the third on my wrap-up and hopes for working in Lunawa in the future.

Part I: Introduction (4th July 2017)

This is my official “just about to begin” blog post! I’ve already made a number of changes to my proposed project, and I’m just kicking off.

When I wrote my proposal for the PKG Public Service Fellowship, I envisioned running an intensive design thinking series for students at St John’s Maha Vidyalaya in Mattakkuliya, in Sri Lanka, a school whose 8th graders my team at Building Bridges has been working with since January.

I was going to work with students in the Ordinary Level classes (i.e. Grades 10 and 11), just before they take the standardized exam at the end of the 11th grade that determines what subjects they can take for the Advanced Level, their high school leaving certificate.

However, conversations with the Building Bridges team have led me to think that it would be best to run this series with 9th graders, given that students in the 10th and 11th grades are expected to spend more of their time studying. It might also be useful to have these conversations around thinking ahead to the upcoming years and developing tools for resilience and mental preparation before launching into the thick of it.

Originally, I proposed teaching a ten-session series that would teach one key “piece” of the design thinking puzzle (i.e. empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test) over the space of one or two sessions each. It would be comprehensive and intensive, my usual approach to sharing knowledge.

During my time at Stanford, I’ve spoken to educators and researchers (Devon Young, Kelly Schmutte, and Adam Royalty at the d.school, Emily Bailard and Naomi Baer at the Center for Social Innovation), and taken design thinking-related coursework (Creative Gym, Tactics of Creativity, Long Distance Design, From Prototype to Fruition, Research as Design, and Exponential Ideation). This has helped me change the syllabus significantly, which I am noting as it reflects a shift in my own approach to teaching, and promises to solve a few problems I’ve grappled with in the past.

The latest iteration of my syllabus is structured as a series of challenges to be introduced and carried out during the space of the two-hour workshop (i.e. we’ll be running through the 5-stage cycle very quickly every day).

This has several benefits. Firstly, it helps me to be a better design thinker, iterating rapidly based on the feedback I get from participants, rather than spend ten whole sessions before any of us can get a clear picture of what I’m offering and how it is being received.

Secondly, it enables us to work through a number of challenges over the ten sessions rather than just one or two, so participants can become familiar with processes and better understand how design thinking can be applied to everyday challenges.

Thirdly, it works around the problem of absence. While there are always a few committed children who appear at every session, most will certainly miss a few workshops. This disrupts the flow, especially if we are trying to teach a lesson that spans multiple sessions. At this early stage, I figure we need to just focus on buy-in, not a comprehensive understanding.

Fourthly, this structure of repeated cycles enables a form of monitoring and evaluation. I plan to compare attendance with the ability to understand the logic of the process, and the ability (especially in later sessions) to make decisions on what to do next without being directly as overtly as at the beginning of the series.

I’m still working out the details, but I think that once I’ve figured it out, this provides a robust method for evaluating retention of what is taught. I’ve also been in conversation with Naomi Baer about easy methods for checking in and doing a quick evaluation at regular intervals after the series is over.

The other major change to the series came after a meeting the team had with the principal in June. We held off on the photojournalism series that was supposed to launch in June because of Ramadan fasting (many of our students are Muslim), and July is not a very logical time to start a series because the latter half of the month is dedicated to end-of-term exams.

Instead, I’ll be running it as a holiday workshop in August, Monday to Friday for two weeks (which gives me time to still visit the other communities up north during the last two weeks of the month). This will also hopefully improve attendance and create a sense of momentum and excitement.

So, what will I be doing in July?

Preparing for our holiday workshop series in August

Firstly, I’ll be trying to get the “fuller picture” of this community in a way that I didn’t have the chance to really explore when I was doing the first series. I’m going to figure out a good way to comfortably get talking to parents and teachers.

Ideally, I’d like to visit St. John’s, and sit in on a few classes or observe what’s going on, and organize a meeting with parents to get a sense of what they thought of previous workshops and how enthusiastic they might be for a holiday workshop series. This is something I’m going to have to work out sensitively so that I don’t step on people’s toes and seem really nosy.

Relatedly, I’ll also be fleshing out my own syllabus, creating worksheets, purchasing stationery and materials, and translating resources into Sinhala and Tamil in preparation for the workshops.

I’ll also be working with team member Amalini De Sayrah to develop a work plan for the photojournalism series she is leading, which will also run in August (but on the weekends). Currently, I’ve been collecting donations of old cameras (we’ve gotten a few from members of the MIT Architecture community) to help her get started, and I’ve collected around 10 so far!

Updating our website and processes for sharing news/resources

Earlier this spring, I migrated all the posts from the old Building Bridges blog and launched our new website. One of our team members, Irfadha Muzammil, ran an all-new visual arts series, supported by team members Firi Rahman and Amalini De Sayrah. Some of the blog posts from this series are incomplete, especially as we’ve been experimenting with a new format, so I’ll be working with Irfadha to complete them and publicize them on our social media channels.

I’ll also create PDF resources from this series that capture our most successful activities, and have them translated into Sinhala and Tamil, so that we can share these with teachers at St. John’s and other interested educators. I’ve seen other websites that provide access to their resources page through an email sign-up, and I’m going to speak to mentors about whether this might be a good way to start creating an email list (i.e. do we want our most regular visitors to be other educators?).

Based on these conversations, I may also put all the pieces in place for launching a quarterly newsletter as one method for growing our audience – although I’m not sure yet if our audience would largely be other educators, potential funders, or our growing network of supporters and mentors who want to be updated on our latest activities.

To do this, I’ll be talking to Simon Boot, who was one of my tutors from the Queen’s Young Leaders leadership course Leading Change, and program manager at Accelerator (a business incubator in London), who did a series of tutorials with us around hacks like the business model canvas and mail mergers, specifically MailChimp.

Finally, I’ll be figuring out if we need to streamline our social media strategy and working on it if so (especially since it’s something I can continue to manage remotely if necessary). For this, I’ll reach out to Lea Rice, another tutor at Leading Change whose specialty is precisely this 🙂

Figuring out our financial strategy

I’ll also be doing a bit of research into managing our finances, especially since we recently received a very generous donation from my former landlord and landlady in Palo Alto, and received some money from MIT Sandbox to purchase materials (which is one major expense for Building Bridges, and one that the PKG Fellowship doesn’t generally cover).

I’d like to set up an account that makes it easy for our team to access, but also to provide transparency on all our purchases and expenses. I’d also like to set up a donation page for the website (perhaps through PayPal?) that makes it easy for supporters who reach out to us to make their donations.

Originally, I was also planning to speak to potential corporate partners, but as we’re currently revisiting who we consider to be our users and customers (and also because our team is currently so small), I think I’m going to stick with applying for small grants for the moment. I don’t want to approach a potential partner without being able to clearly and crisply articulate what we can offer to them that will be of value.

That’s all for now!

Naturally, the bulk of my learning is yet to come. I’m going to be writing detailed blogs on each of the sessions, as well, perhaps, on related endeavors (if appropriate to share) over at Building Bridges, and I’ll provide links to each one. I’ll also try to provide write-ups of meetings, and sneak peeks of our resources.


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