Jada Levi’s senior honors math class at Evanston Township High School was one of the most unusual courses she had ever taken. And not just because the assignments seemed unrelated to algebra, AP Calculus or statistics.

The questions Levi needed to solve lacked correct or even definitive answers. And if she skipped an assignment or didn’t pull her weight, she’d be letting down a client in the school or the community.

“In most other classes, I’m doing the work to get the grade,” said Levi, who graduated in 2020 and is pursuing a degree in illustration at Columbia College in Chicago. “Here, you can do what you want, and I’m doing it because I care.”

Levi’s attitude was exactly what Northwestern University and ETHS designers had in mind when they developed the class, STEAM Design Thinking and Innovation. Demand for the interdisciplinary course is growing exponentially at ETHS, in part because it challenges students with creative problem-solving and gives them practical skills and experiences before leaving high school.

The class was modeled on a similar course offered at Northwestern and created with the help of the Northwestern/ETHS partnership office to widen the STEM pipeline. Adding arts, taking a design approach and using student-devised strategies to help solve problems opens the door for more perspectives in the field, said partnership coordinator Kristen Perkins, who spearheaded the project.

Students brainstorm during the STEAM Design Thinking and Innovation course at ETHS. (Photo by Steve Drey)

“Learning, growth and struggle is all part of your grade, in a way that’s unlike other classes,” Perkins said. “What do you do when a problem is big and complicated, and you don’t know where to start? This happens in the real world, but we often don’t have those conversations in other classes because there isn’t time, and they aren’t valued.”

At a time when young people must compete with computers for jobs and prepare for careers that don’t yet exist, classes like STEAM Design Thinking and Innovation are more essential than ever. Working in teams, students find Evanston-based clients, pick problems without obvious answers and design and test their own potential solutions.

Ultimately, however, the class is less about creating a successful final project and more about learning from failure and negotiating the relationships that form during the intense collaboration, something that became starkly clear once the COVID-19 pandemic forced classes to be held remotely.

During a nonpandemic year, students work together for months, rather than weeks. They pursue their own topics and choose who they want to work with, which can test even the best of friendships.

“We’re trying to teach them this process of navigating ambiguity is messy, and messy doesn’t mean bad,” said former ETHS math teacher Liesa Klyn, who taught the class for three years and is now building a STEAM program at Hermantown Middle School in northern Minnesota. “We really should rename it ‘Figure out how to do Important Stuff Together.’”

Math teacher Liesa Klyn works with students in STEAM Design Thinking and Innovation. (Photo by Steve Drey)

The yearlong honors class is open to all seniors. It debuted with nine students in 2017; this year, 30 students are enrolled.

Students explore problem-solving in all the STEAM fields during the first half of the course, starting with small- and medium-sized assignments such as designing introduction activities for the class, preparing questions to interview experts in the field and physically building something that wasn’t there before or something that represents the student, said ETHS teacher Jose Arias.

As they gain skills, they take on their larger, final project, which is largely self-driven and forces students to reach out to leaders in the community.

“We’ve really passed the ownership on to the students and are letting them run with it,” said Northwestern alumnus Christopher Bayston, the Segal Design Innovation Fellow at ETHS who supported the class. “We try hard not to limit them, but we prepare everyone to communicate as if they’re on a real job.”

During one class, students clustered in small groups and discussed who their “users” should be or wrote emails to clients. Levi’s team, which worked with The Darkest Horse, a digital media and production company that spotlights women, minorities and underrepresented leaders in tech, reviewed their weekly log and tried to reorganize.

Throughout the year, the students have different checkpoints that include visits from outside experts, including Northwestern’s Nichole Pinkard, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences; Marcelo Worsley, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences; and Peter Civetta, Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, who read over student briefs and offered feedback. The final project is normally an interactive demonstration that engages the class.

Northwestern University’s Nichole Pinkard, Associate Professor of Learning Sciences, talks with the STEAM Design Thinking and Innovation class. (Photo by Steve Drey)

One previous group, for example, produced a coloring book for students of all ages to “redefine the preconceived notions about gender roles, ability and race.” As part of their final demonstration, they asked their classmates to color and observed how their mock users interfaced with the book.

“They don’t hold our hands anymore,” said ETHS alumna Rachel Lott, whose group formed over a shared interest in economics during her senior year. Her team explored how the legalization of marijuana could affect education; their client was an Evanston Council member. “They tell us what we need to do. but there’s also a lot that we must do on our own, like interviewing and research.”

Students also called the class a “bridge to the real world,” and said they valued that they were treated like adults. Many students have eye-opening experiences with real collaboration, since they’re used to being on teams with one person who decides they’d rather do things themselves, Klyn said. Or they divide and conquer, which teachers say is both obvious and ineffective.

“The best part is when they realize that real collaboration comes with conflict,” Klyn said. “And that it’s the fear of the conflict that is detrimental to the group rather than the conflict itself.”

STEAM whiteboard
The STEAM class teaches students about learning from failure and working closely with others. (Photo by Steve Drey)

Perhaps the biggest test for everyone, however, came when the students had to finish the course remotely during the 2020-21 school year. One group was working with nutrition services to reduce the stigma of the school cafeteria. With no one eating in the cafeteria, their mission rapidly changed. Another group was developing a plan to make homecoming more appealing to those who identify as LatinX.

“This project is my favorite in terms of learning how to embrace the phrase, ‘The obstacle in the path is not the obstacle, but the path,’” Klyn joked during a Zoom call with the team.

But experts like Pinkard, who joined several Zoom calls to answer questions or help guide the students, were impressed with the first-round prototypes. When Levi’s team unveiled a Minecraft-based solution to help companies understand and appreciate issues of diversity, Pinkard was visibly enthused.

“Your project is good under normal circumstances, and when you toss in the fact that you’ve had to go online and figure it out, that makes it amazing,” she said. “Be proud of your work. You’re killing it.”

Students in the STEAM class collaborate in team projects. (Photo by Steve Drey)

Helping teens learn “soft skills” like communication, teamwork, dependability, leadership and problem solving is far more draining than teaching AP Calculus, said ETHS math teacher Lara DeMoya, who co-taught with Klyn and now partners with Arias. The instructors say it’s a fundamental­ – and often missing – part of education.

“In my 12 years of teaching, it’s the first time it feels like I’m seeing real growth in the kids,” Klyn said.

The students agree. Levi said the first step in the design thinking process – empathize – will help her when she becomes an animator. “It will help me connect with people,” she said. “And to care about what I’m doing.”

Julie Deardorff

Julie Deardorff is an Evanston resident, the mom of two teenagers, and award-winning journalist and columnist who covered everything from sports and politics to education and health during a 23-year career...