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Education Spotlight: A Spark of Student Innovation

The Education Spotlight is intended to showcase some of the best ways design thinking is being used in the education sector around the world. In this edition, we summarize how an incredible design competition is giving students the confidence to eagerly approach complex problems.

Each year in Chattanooga, the Bright Spark student design competition floods the greater region with creativity and inspiration. Bright Spark is a social initiative that aims to ignite creative confidence in the education system by equipping students and educators with design thinking skills. Through various learning programs, competitions and workshops, Bright Spark has enabled hundreds of educators and thousands of students to solve complex problems using human centered design.

Bright Spark is designed and run by Bridge Innovate, a prestigious design and innovation consultancy with headquarters in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jenny Whitener, CEO of Bridge Innovate and Founder of Bright Spark, decided to launch the initiative after realizing first-hand how creativity was being abolished in education.

After her son was scolded for coloring trees the “wrong color” in elementary school, Jenny set out to create something that would promote and celebrate creative thinking through the application of design thinking. Now, just a few years later, hundreds of students and dozens of teachers are participating in various Bright Spark programs each year, particularly the student design competition.

Here’s how it works:

Student teams begin by enrolling in the design competition during the Autumn, when the design challenge is announced. The design challenge comes from the competition’s key partners and often addresses a social issue. For example, previous challenges have been PlayCore’s “How might we learn science, technology, engineering and math through play” and Thrive Regional Partnership’s “How might we connect resources and services within and into our communities to help students and families in need thrive?” Teams can choose to pursue whichever design challenge they find more appealing.

In January, the competition formally kicks off! Each team, which consists of students and at least one teacher to lead them, receives design thinking training as the competition begins. From there, they go through an intense two-month design process that is filled with learning and application. In addition to exercising design thinking skills, from immense field research through rapid prototyping, students are also exposed to opportunities that expand their knowledge. The competition includes:

  • Virtual and in-person design thinking workshops
  • Presentations from subject matter experts and designers (from organizations like SCAD, Coca Cola, Shaw Industries, The University of Tennessee)
  • A prototype review session that gives students the opportunity to present their prototypes to a panel of judges (made up of more than 25 community leaders with a vast range of expertise!) before the submission deadline, allowing teams a couple of weeks to make iterations
  • The Student Design Awards: a concluding ceremony that showcases every team’s final design, as well as a keynote speaker and awards presentation. (Last year’s ceremony was at Volkswagen and included a keynote from Ryan Johnson, head of User Experience Design at The Home Depot)

A moment from the Prototype Review session, where students receive feedback from experts

The amount of collaboration that goes into the Bright Spark competition is magnificent. Hundreds of stakeholders around the region come together to provide an experience that changes the way students approach problems. The teams’ results are inspiring. Have a look for yourself.

Students that were once timid to interact during group work find themselves eager to lead projects after gaining creative confidence that isn’t offered in a traditional school setting. Teachers are enabled to engage their students in entirely different ways. Companies are able to contribute to the development of their future leaders, while receiving some of the most creative ideas they could have never imagined. It’s a win-win-win.

“I believe incorporating the use of design thinking into my classroom is one of the most valuable things I have done for my students. It has made my students more independent thinkers and problem-solvers. I have become even more of a facilitator of learning and have enjoyed watching students taking control of their own learning. They are learning that they can improve their homes, schools, communities, and the world. If you want your students to be lifelong learners and contributing members of society, allowing them to problem-solve through the design thinking process is extremely worthwhile.”

  Martha Thomason, Bright Spark Teacher Leader

Above all, Bright Spark is helping to mold a generation that makes decisions empathetically by incorporating design thinking into problem solving. Couldn’t the world use more of that?

Check out a fun video from last year’s competition.

A moment from the Student Design Awards. These ladies won Best Overall.

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