Background image of high school students posting sticky notes onto a purple wall


Solving by Design: Students rise to the challenge

For the second year running, Ecotrust is partnering with Construct Foundation on design challenges for local high school students to help them solve for the real-world challenges their futures hold.

At Ecotrust, we know that designing solutions to 21st century challenges will require all kinds of creativity, collaboration, and smarts. And, we know that building a new economy that brings social, economic, and environmental benefit to our region means empowering the next generation to be innovators and practical problem solvers. That’s why, for the second year running, we are partnering with ConstructBreaker, and College Possible in a design challenge for local high school students to help prepare them to solve for the real-world challenges their futures hold.

On Monday, April 18, in conjunction with Design Week Portland, we will join Construct in launching this year’s student design challenge: The Future of Livable Cities. The event will be held at the Ecotrust building from 5:30-8 pm. More info and tickets are available here.

students standing in a group
Construct has been been supporting innovative teachers, projects, initiatives, and schools since 2013.

I asked Gina Condon, founder and president of Construct, to share a little more about their mission and design thinking approach.

Tell us about how Construct is working to develop the skills our kids need to succeed in the new economy.
We are identifying, incubating, and integrating educational programs that elevate 21st century skills as foundational knowledge. At the same time, we partner with innovative teachers, administrators, and leaders from community-based organizations who are working with underrepresented youth to ensure all of our young people have access to the best new programs that will prepare them for the innovation economy.

Gina Condon, executive director of Construct, smiles

What do you think are the most important challenges facing education today?
We need to look at transforming teaching and learning in a way that prepares our kids for life after school and for the opportunities of the new economy. I think the biggest challenge lies in the system constraints that prevent opportunities for inquiry-based learning to take place. Project-based learning which encourages student-led inquiry takes more than a 50-minute period will allow. It requires larger blocks of time and for teachers to shift into a facilitator role. Additionally, I would like to see a shift from the heavy focus on content to a focus on skill development. For example, rather than measuring what content students commit to memory around a given unit, how about measuring their ability to “access and analyze data” on a particular subject? That is a high level transferable skill that will support a young person in whatever direction they take after school.

Last year was the first exclusively high school “Breaker” challenge, the “Future of Food.” What were some highlights and takeaways?
I enjoy seeing students practice “generative questions” where every idea is welcome. There is a step in design thinking called “ideation” when participants share ideas collaboratively and practice saying, “yes, and…” growing a list of ideas. It is a really great way to flush out a lot of new ideas and practice skills useful in any collaborative engagement. When is the last time you were in a meeting and everyone said, “yes, and…” instead of “yes, but….”?

The biggest highlight for me is watching the kids use a version of the Business Model Canvass to move their creative new design idea toward a commercially viable product. It is a challenging process and quite empowering. They take it very seriously, as it is an opportunity to build something new and add value to the world!

How can business leaders help give kids the skills they need to succeed in the new economy? 
Really just opening your doors and sharing what you do — especially lessons learned through trial and error — is so valuable. By and large I have found that local businesses appreciate being asked to engage with students in a concise way. They want to connect the next generation to their world. The Breaker model does a wonderful job providing bite sized but impactful ways for industry leaders to engage with students.

We invite you to connect with us and expand the Beaker model across the region. Do you have a design challenge you would like to sponsor? Breaker can curate a student challenge that will bring fresh ideas and sustainable solutions for your industry!

Two students study a large unrolled paper on the floor of a classroom
Last year was the first exclusively high school “Breaker” challenge, the Future of Food.

Tell us about this year’s challenge and the focus on “livable cities.”
We have been thinking about this topic for a while, as the city is loaded with creative architects and builders looking to design a commercially viable way to produce a “net zero” building. At the same time, I have talked to numerous middle and high school teachers who are looking for new curriculum ideas that address issues around social justice. Many school communities, where underrepresented students attend, have been negatively impacted by the rapid expansion of our city. So the idea of designing a livable city for everyone is a relevant topic for our students to investigate!

We saw the opportunity to partner with Ecotrust as they have become deeply involved in urban renewal. Through innovative developments such as your headquarters, the Jean Vollum Natural Capital Center, and your new development, the Redd on Salmon Street, Ecotrust has shown how critical it is to consider the built environment as we work to transform our economies for the next generation.