How design thinking in high school set this student up for college success

This student shares how the design thinking process helps her engage deeply in her own learning.

By Team XQ

At XQ, high school is all about providing students with the skills they’ll need to be prepared for college, career, and life. That means developing students who are deeply engaged in their own learning and ready to shape a fast-changing world. And that means ensuring that our country’s young learners have the confidence to contribute, even when no else is doing so.

As more high schools sign up to rethink what’s possible for students across the country, we’ve witnessed firsthand what they’re capable of when given the opportunity to participate in how and what they learn.

At New Harmony High in New Orleans, students are tackling the issue of climate change in their local environment. We know that students at Latitude High in Oakland are forging meaningful relationships with one of the most diverse (and technologically focused) communities in the country. And we know that educators at Elizabethton High School in Elizabethton, Tennessee, are preparing their students for success in college before they even arrive.

But what happens when students graduate from XQ schools? Are the things they learned during their time in high school helped them in college? 

To find out, we spoke to Anna, a graduate of Iowa BIG, who’s currently majoring in Chemistry and German at Dartmouth College.

Before we talk about what you’re up to now, can you tell us how you decided to enroll at Iowa BIG?

Anna: To be honest, I didn’t know that much about it going in. It was kind of a blind leap of faith because I had really only talked to maybe one other person who had done it. I think a lot of people were a little tentative about joining because it is a lot of hours of your day going into this unproven thing and people have other commitments at school that they were worried about. 

Getting there, it almost felt like a separate universe from the other school I was attending because there were a lot of fresh faces. I think that was almost refreshing because going to high school, you kind of see the same faces for four years. So it’s nice to have some new perspectives, new people to work with.

You spent two years at Iowa BIG and during that time you applied to college. You’re studying at Dartmouth now—can you tell us about how Iowa BIG influenced your application process?

Anna: I think they played a big role in my college application process. Anybody who does the Common App (an undergraduate college admission application that applicants may use to apply to any of more than 800 member colleges and universities) will know that finding a good topic for your main essay is probably the biggest challenge because you’ll be sending that to every school. 

So you want to make sure you have a good story to tell, something genuine, something that was actually impactful and meaningful. I ended up writing my college essay about my Sleeping Giant Project, the one where my classmates and I designed a park for a part of town that was damaged by a major flood in 2008.

I felt like that project really had a forceful story that really connected with my community. Especially having gotten through such a disaster. I think being able to connect that travesty to the work I was able to do… and telling the story of how it came to be had a big impact on my college application.

Can you talk a little bit more about crafting that essay, since that is such a huge part of the college application process these days? 

Anna: Yeah. It’s a long process if you are willing to put the work in. I probably started thinking of what I wanted to write my essay about in August and college apps are due at the end of December, early January. 

I think the advice I would give for people writing an essay is to start thinking about it really early. Think about what the most important things in your life are. Is there anything that is unique about yourself or any subjects you’re extremely passionate about? I think you’ll naturally be able to write something more impactful using those topics because you’ll just be able to be genuine about what you’re writing.

Are you using any skills that you learned at BIG in college?

Anna: I think that the forward-moving planning mentality that I developed at BIG really helped. A big element of being at BIG is planning your own time. In college, you go to a lot fewer hours of classes than you do in high school, but you have a lot more work to do. So being able to balance that is a huge challenge that a lot of people face.

What does that look like in the college classroom?

Anna: I’ve had a lot of reading discussion classes, where you’re just in a small classroom just talking about stuff with the professor and a small group of students. My confidence in speaking up in a group definitely helped that. That was something I was able to take away from BIG. 

Coincidentally, I took a really interesting class last winter called Design Thinking. And so it was really interesting, seeing the parallels between that and my BIG experience.

How so?

Anna: A lot of what I experimented with at BIG focused on project design and running that project while keeping a human-centered design focus. In this class, we looked at it from a more formulaic academic approach and we did six projects over the course of the class. So while the projects weren’t necessarily rooted in the community, I think it was really interesting and I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I know all of this. I just didn’t have the words.”

How does a design thinking approach apply to your college experience?

Anna: You can use design thinking to make pretty much any decision. For example, I have to make a lot of important academic decisions. Like what should I major in? Should I do this internship? What should I apply for? Should I go and study abroad? So using design thinking to decide what I want to do with my life has been something I took away from that class. Also, I think in general, any group project that you do in any class, regardless of what it’s about, design thinking can help you plan and work more streamlined as a group. 

How did you get the confidence to say: I want to go to this school, I’m going to apply here? 

Anna: Yeah, I don’t know. I guess it’s just always been, I don’t know if BIG fostered this or if it was kind of just always a personality trait I had of just pushing myself to be the best I can be. So I applied to a lot of “tough-to-get-into” schools just because I wanted to see what is the absolute maximum that I can go.

Can you tell us a little more about why you like to challenge yourself?

Anna: If you think of a leader in your head, my personality type might not necessarily be the first one that pops into your head. I’m just a little more reserved, introverted, “think first, talk second” type of person. I think they taught me that people can have all kinds of personality types and still be considered a leader. 

That has been one of the biggest takeaways. I feel more confident working in group projects in college. I would be more confident in going to grad school with my leadership skills. And so I think that’s been kind of the biggest life lesson I learned at BIG.

Potential is something that goes hand-in-hand with the future. By considering human-centered approaches to learning, like those associated with design thinking, and incorporating them with XQ’s Design Principles, we can forge a path of education that’s suited to the needs of every student by taking into account how they learn and how they want to learn. When schools and educators and communities truly believe in the shared potential of their students, the future becomes that very potential, and it is unleashed. That’s exactly why it is so crucial that we commit to expressing belief in the potential of every student, no matter what. When we don’t we run the risk of students saying “I didn’t really try because I didn’t think I could do it,” instead of hearing students like Anna saying, “I believe that if you give your whole effort, you’re going to succeed.”

Learn more about XQ school Iowa BIG here.

If you know a student with a story to tell about their high school experience, tell us about it using #ReThinkHighSchool on social media or consider signing up as an XQ blog contributor.