Empowering At-Risk Teens to Shape Environmental Challenges with Design

Participants document grey infrastructure along the Los Angeles River. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Participants document grey infrastructure along the Los Angeles River. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

This piece originally appeared in the Sage Magazine 2017 Print Edition: Justice Out of Place.

***

Reviewing research transcripts, I contemplated the words of a sixteen-year-old who I interviewed against the backdrop of sweltering summer heat and blanket of smog in Los Angeles. Immune to the ebb and flow of traffic noise accompanying the interview, she proclaimed: “Designing for environmental use isn’t as hard as you would think it would be . . . you could use your own perspective to help the world in a better way. It’s pretty easy.”

Caught in the complex social, political, and economic fabric that often shapes environmental decision making, I was surprised and, frankly, refreshed to find that designing environmentally equitable cities seemed rather obvious to a teenager.

This interview took place amid my research last summer, where I explored how “design thinking” can enable at-risk teenagers to understand and propose solutions to urban water depletion in Los Angeles, California. Design thinking is a creative teaching and learning approach that involves observation, problem framing, and hands-on prototyping. When compared to more direct methods of classroom instruction, design thinking has been shown to boost students’ comprehension of complicated problems.

Hungry for experiential outdoor learning, a teen remarked, “At school you have like textbooks and you read and you memorize stuff, but [design] is like a hands-on thing . . . it makes it that much more important if you really get out there and like look at the stuff.” Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky

Hungry for experiential outdoor learning, a teen remarked, “At school you have like textbooks and you read and you memorize stuff, but [design] is like a hands-on thing . . . it makes it that much more important if you really get out there and like look at the stuff.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Overwhelmed by standardized testing, at-risk students are falling through the cracks of an inflexible educational system that prioritizes uniform approaches to teaching and learning over student interest and creativity.

Despite this, few studies have examined the potential of a design thinking approach to help at-risk teenagers analyze the environmental challenges disproportionately impacting their lives and neighborhoods, such as urban water depletion.

Using Los Angeles’s drought as a case study, I sought to understand what at-risk teenagers know about the city’s water supply and basic hydrology, their values concerning urban water usage, and the thought processes driving their design decisions. Ultimately, I wanted to understand their attitudes toward design thinking as a teaching methodology and learning approach.

***

I ran the first design thinking workshop in a narrow “Teen Terrace” enclosed by concrete walls, under a sign that read “Great Futures Start Here.” Throughout the summer, I continued facilitating subsequent workshops at various youth organizations in Los Angeles County. Altogether, groups of teenagers affiliated with The Boys and Girls Club of Burbank and Greater East Valley, Hands4Hope Los Angeles, and North Valley Caring Services signed up to participate in the three-day program.

Teens who decided to participate were already concerned about the effects of the city’s drought, motivated to make a difference in their community, and valued individuality and self-reliance.

The design thinking workshop was composed of four steps: 1. Observation; 2. Brainstorming; 3. Ideation; and 4. Prototyping.

***

Observation

 

I'm an expert on what's what in North Hollywood, California. But some people that have never been here wouldn't even know this place exists . . . They hear that California has a drought [but] they don't know like what it is . . . how it affects us. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

“I’m an expert on what’s what in North Hollywood, California. But some people that have never been here wouldn’t even know this place exists . . . They hear that California has a drought [but] they don’t know like what it is . . . how it affects us.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Observation activities took place along the Glendale Narrows, the only unpaved, soft-bottom stretch of the Los Angeles River with visible riparian vegetation. Participants noted and compared green and grey infrastructure surrounding the river.

The teens often passed by the fenced off river, but rarely found reason to explore its dry channel. Entering the densely vegetated Glendale Narrows, participants ran toward the open water, took pictures of public art framing the river’s edge, climbed barriers and trees bordering the river, and paused to observe waterfowl. Safe, nice parks didn’t exist in some teens’ immediate neighborhoods. One participant expressed, “I have to admit, this place is pretty.”

One teen reflected, “I'm a girl and I'm a Latina, so it's very important because I'm like setting a different example.” And another remarked, “I just wanna be independent for myself and know that I can do something by myself, and I don't need help from anybody else.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

One teen reflected, “I’m a girl and I’m a Latina, so it’s very important because I’m like setting a different example.” And another remarked, “I just wanna be independent for myself and know that I can do something by myself, and I don’t need help from anybody else.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

While the LA River crossed most participants’ daily commutes, many were surprised to see pools of water in an otherwise paved, arid landscape. Comparing paved and soil surfaces along the river channel helped illuminate the importance of water retention and infiltration, as well as habitat restoration. The teens recognized that the river was part of a larger ecosystem requiring diverse habitats for species to thrive. They began to question why certain areas supported vegetation and wildlife while others did not, and recognized how human-made features like culverts directed water flow.

The teens also investigated new water features, such as bioswales, which they did not expect to find in a nearby public park. Surrounded by mountains, they questioned why so much water was imported without optimizing the capabilities of their own watershed. They wanted to see things done differently.

***

Brainstorming

 

"I would just look at maybe an area that isn't like as nice or isn't as developed. I would just see, I think, possibility more than anything, because I saw some of those sites and I saw what it could be and I think just some of those areas could be improved. And I guess I'll also be kind of bummed that they're not..." [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

“I would just look at maybe an area that isn’t like as nice or isn’t as developed. I would just see, I think, possibility more than anything, because I saw some of those sites and I saw what it could be and I think just some of those areas could be improved. And I guess I’ll also be kind of bummed that they’re not…” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Brainstorming activities involved noting areas of heavy water consumption on post-it notes and clustering words and phrases thematically.

These activities involved collectively writing and sketching ideas on poster-size paper and helped build literacy. Once introduced to new concepts like virtual water, the teens used related terms, such as bluegreen and grey water comfortably.

Some teens remembered the names of water features they saw on the field trip, such as bioswale and culvert, while others remembered words and phrases they thought were cool like cistern. The brainstorming process enabled participants to share, discuss, and ultimately apply the new terms and concepts they learned to their design projects.

***

Ideation

 

Following a brainstorming activity, one teen expressed: “Yesterday [my family and I] were going to my brother's [soccer] practice and we were just talking about the water and I told them about the green water, the blue water, and the grey water. They were like interested because you know it's something different than . . . you hear or we talk about.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Following a brainstorming activity, one teen expressed: “Yesterday [my family and I] were going to my brother’s [soccer] practice and we were just talking about the water and I told them about the green water, the blue water, and the grey water. They were like interested because you know it’s something different than . . . you hear or we talk about.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Participants sketched a variety of ideas to address the design challenge and selected one to refine.

A teen remarked, “Knowing that people like my idea makes me feel like, oh if I can get it to be this good, maybe I can continue coming up with ideas like this.” Another proudly added, “Well if I could do this one thing, then maybe I can do something greater.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

A teen remarked, “Knowing that people like my idea makes me feel like, oh if I can get it to be this good, maybe I can continue coming up with ideas like this.” Another proudly added, “Well if I could do this one thing, then maybe I can do something greater.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Building on the lessons learned from observation and brainstorming activities, the teens were given a design challenge: to develop an idea that reduces heavy water usage and replenishes groundwater at their own youth organization facility.

Returning from the river, the teens were excited to reimagine their workshop site. Walking around each site as a group, I pointed out landscape features that could direct water. However, I was excited to see how eagerly the teens chimed in with more ideas. After visiting the river and jotting down their initial thoughts, nearly every group noticed inefficiencies like downspouts that led water to asphalt instead of vegetation at their youth organization facility.

The teens recognized the benefit of having many ideas to choose from. They grew attached to their final idea, and with this sense of ownership, were committed to completing their projects.

***

Prototyping

 

"I think that once you pick one idea . . . you kind of think of it critically, because when it's just five ideas that you have, you're kind of thinking of all of them just in general . . . But I think once you really pick one you kind of get attached to that one and you wanna see [it] become true." [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

“I think that once you pick one idea . . . you kind of think of it critically, because when it’s just five ideas that you have, you’re kind of thinking of all of them just in general . . . But I think once you really pick one you kind of get attached to that one and you wanna see [it] become true.” [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Participants created a final poster and small-scale, cardboard “prototype” of their selected idea. 

Building in 3D helped the teens envision how their idea would “work if it was put into real life.” They considered how the features of their design would interact with the existing landscape, how topography would direct water, and where water would be stored for later use or infiltration.

The teens were surprised by their own aptitude for creativity; their ideas were inspired, carefully planned and executed.

Prototype example. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Prototype example. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

The teens designed practical solutions that could easily be implemented at their youth organization facility. One teen split and redirected a downspout to multiple areas for infiltration. Another addressed a very real challenge at her site by positioning a garden directly below a dripping AC unit. A few teens even considered onsite wastewater reuse and included smart sprinkler systems in their designs.

Others redesigned the entire site and imagined a series of pipes carrying water to vegetation, underground cisterns, aquifers and the LA River. They slanted and rounded roofs and fields to maximize water collection. Some teens went as far as making topographic changes and designed hills, culverts, and bioswales to direct water.

One teen added an educational component to her design by including signage that explains the benefits of green infrastructure to the younger kids who also use the site.

***

Seeing at-risk teens motivated and enthusiastic about solving difficult, real-world problems emphasized the significance of design thinking––an approach that rewards overlooked strengths, develops underutilized capabilities, and recognizes the potential these students possess. Most importantly, though, design thinking can help support at-risk teenagers in recognizing the tremendous value of their own ideas.

Prototype example. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Prototype example. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Creating accessible pathways to engage at-risk teenagers in solving environmental challenges is vital to the success of current and future environmental movements, which are in need of diverse voices. Given the environmental hurdles facing urban and rural areas, the untapped passion and genuine concern these students have for making a difference must be embraced should success and progress effectively take root.

A vast landscape of polluted grey streets amplified the midsummer heat wave. Yet, amid a small stretch of lush vegetation lining the LA River, the teens found the inspiration they needed to imagine a different Los Angeles.

Participants observe waterfowl along the Los Angeles River. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Participants observe waterfowl along the Los Angeles River. [Photo Credit: Yanin Kramsky]

Yanin Kramsky

Yanin Kramsky

Yanin Kramsky is a designer and Master’s student at Yale F&ES. They are passionate about research methods that prioritize community involvement and agency, and creating avenues for youth to critically examine environmental challenges.

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