Masters of Education Design Thinking students connect Burlington youth to local histories and the power of story

In partnership with the Power and Place Collaborative and Burlington Summer Youth Camps, Elon Master of Education students connected over 200 Burlington youth through design thinking workshops on the power of sharing stories and connecting to our communities.

Elon students in the Master of Education (M.Ed.) 7460 Design Thinking course partnered with the African American Cultural Arts and History Center (AACAHC) and the Power and Place Collaborative to facilitate design thinking educational activities for Burlington Summer Youth Camps.

With the support of community partners Shineece Sellars, executive director of the African American Cultural Arts and History Center, and  Leah Podolle, Burlington’s Youth Program supervisor, students designed place-based and interactive educational activities to foster creative storytelling for over 200 youth aged six-to-14.

Before the implementation of their lesson plans, M.Ed. students learned the fundamentals of equity-centered design thinking practices. The course was co-taught by Danielle Lake, director of Design Thinking and associate professor; Adam Kanowitz, teaching apprentice and Design Thinking catalyst; and Dhvani Toprani, instructional technologist.

To support local history and storytelling efforts as well as design intergenerational bridges, students toured the African American Cultural Arts Center with Sellars, executive director of the center. To further their knowledge base, students also read and met with design thinking practitioners and researchers from across fields, exploring research from Jeanne M. Liedtka and methods like the Innovators’ Compass by Ela Ben-Ur.

Each Youth Camp session was designed to support the Power and Place Collaborative’s key principles of equity-centered design and intergenerational, place-based storytelling while providing interactive, educational activities for the campers. While developing their curriculum and activity plan, each team worked directly with Podolle, supervisor of Youth Programming.

With feedback from local experts, each team took a different approach to engaging youth campers.

One team worked with Explorers for Teens, a camp designed primarily for middle school youth. Campers were asked to explore a sampling of global and local events, most of which occurred during their lifetimes. This was then transferred onto a large-scale timeline, where students were able to manipulate the events and layer their own experiences as the activity progressed.

Youth explored what community means to them and the value of individual purpose and place, followed by viewing the story of a local leader. They then practiced radical listening as a method of sharing their personal stories and overlapping them with those of their peers.

Members of the team who worked with this group summarized the experience, sharing that they were glad “youth were able to recognize where they have been, where they aspire to be in the future, and how these events interact with the experiences of others in their communities.”

Another team of M.Ed. students led a design session at Grove Park Elementary with over 50 elementary students. The session, entitled, “I am, You are, We are,” supported the creation of avatars through age-appropriate hands-on activities for self-reflection on identity and belonging. The session began by encouraging an embodied exploration of place that extends to the outside world. In the end, campers shared their avatars alongside their personal stories.

As a group of international teachers from Chile, Argentina and Colombia, this team noted that they deeply understand how important it is to have a strong sense of “who you are and where you belong.” They went on to say they came to the United States to teach Spanish and their culture. “Being outside of our places gave us a real example of how important it is to create a sense of belonging to a community and how this feeling of belonging and being part of a group develops from dialogue and art.”

Podolle said, “The kids were able to create their own avatars while working in a small group setting with peers. I found this to be a valuable activity simply because it was interactive for the kids and made them think on their own identity.”

St. Mark’s campers explored their sense of place and story through the “I have a story” workshop, designing a custom shoe that explores their sense of self as related to where they have been. After exploring the customized show of local hero and Director of the Mayco Bigelow North Park Center Bobbi Ruffin, students used pictures, words and symbols to depict who they are and where they come from. The purpose of this activity was to have students explore their personal stories through creativity.

Students then “took a walk in someone else’s shoes” through a gallery walk and small group dialogue. Through this experience, students were able to learn about local heroes, discover their personal stories and create community with their peers through conversation by examining and embracing their similarities and differences.

Over 70 Overbrook campers had the opportunity to learn from others’ life stories through the workshop “Our Special Place in the World.” They explored legacies and personal connections to history and reflected on how it has shaped the identity of Burlington. This activity aimed to connect the North Carolina K12 learning standards and local social justice efforts with Design Thinking tools to motivate students to share their stories and the places that are meaningful for their past, present and future.

Campers explored pictures in global and local contexts –such as the Taj Mahal in India, the pyramids in Egypt, the Burlington water tank, the Sock Puppets logo and Andy’s Ice cream shop. Then, they identified the places close to them, shared their past experiences and explored plans for their lives across these places. Finally, they created memory maps of the areas that have meant the most to them in their lives, and they presented them to their peers.

Podolle noted that she valued the engagement of the teachers and their work to make the program a success for Burlington Recreation and Parks Summer Camps. She is looking forward to continuing this partnership with Elon’s Center for Design Thinking.

Sellars also highlighted how the AACAHC looks forward to integrating these activities into the Nov. 9 Intergenerational Night of Storytelling event and youth tours at the Center this fall.

To learn more check out