Sunday, February 26, 2017

A Nation That's Sick?

By Rafe Steinhauer, Tiger Challenge Program Manager

Over this past intersession break, 10 Tiger Challengers and I spent three days in three different schools, gathering qualitative data and inspiration for two urgent projects in education.

One team is designing ways to mitigate academic stress’s impact on adolescent health. The other team is designing ways to increase enrollment in teacher certification programs in New Jersey, thus helping to address shortages in our state. Both projects will run for at least two years; this academic year is all about research.

On the trip, the teams conducted a mix of group conversations with K-12 students, observations of classes and school spaces, and in-depth interviews with students, teachers, counselors, and administrators. This kind of immersive research triggers a barrage of emotional and intellectual sparks.

For example, one such spark struck me during an interview of a high school teacher about student stress:

“I had one student this year – a real good student – who was acting out of character: missing days and being erratic. So I pulled her aside to see if she was alright or wanted to talk about anything. She had been hospitalized for cutting and suicidal tendencies. About 2 [of our school's students] attempt suicide each year, and a number are hospitalized. I know my students pretty well. I stress all the time over what I might be missing.”

Looking back over the three days, I’m still shaken by how a culture of anxiety has become the norm—how students spoke of crying before class; how administrators and teachers ticked off incidents of student self-harm, and anxiety-related hospitalizations; how powerless all these intelligent and earnest students and educators are in the face of a culture that has clearly passed a tipping point.

How might we help create a culture that takes student well-being as seriously as student achievement? 

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Intersession: two teams, three schools, three days

By Tim Lau '17 & Alex Bolanos '19, Tiger Challenge Fellows

A person’s first set of user interviews are always the most challenging. Thoughts of “what do I say,” or “how can I pull out the deep insights that lay dormant within my subject” seem daunting. The students in this cohort (i.e. “challengers”), however, surprised us with their energy, candor, and openness from the get-go. All doubts evaporated once we left Princeton early Wednesday morning during intersession to conduct research in three schools over three days.

There were two Tiger Challenge teams on this trip. One team is designing ways to mitigate harmful stress and improve adolescent mental health (the “Stress team”). The other team is designing ways to increase applications (especially from diverse candidates) to teacher preparation programs in New Jersey (“the “Teaching team”).

Jack Burdick '19 & Maria Tokarsha '19 conduct a user-interview

We first visited a middle-income high school, where we joined students in rotations of interviews. As bonds formed, insights were drawn. The Teaching team observed that students viewed life after school as “the real world,” so the thought of becoming a teacher felt “like remaining in the fake world.” The Stress team heard how teachers’ compassion and care for each student was muddied by excessive bureaucratic tasks from administration, and a lack of respect from all parties involved.

After a long day of interviewing, we loaded up the vans once more, and began our drive to New Rochelle, NY, to the house we would be staying at throughout the trip. After racing inside to pick our rooms, we began cooking and decompressing from a busy day.

Recalling our own early morning routines from high school, we woke up at sunrise on Thursday to visit a higher-income high school. Throughout the day, we interviewed students, teachers, two librarians and the Principal. The Stress team observed that in such an affluent town with high expectations, stress levels both skyrocketed and became normalized. One senior shared: “If you are not stressed, you are doing something wrong. Stress is beautified here.” The Teaching team found many tensions in students’ perception of teaching. For example, one student, in consecutive sentences, listed all the ways that teaching is challenging and then said, “anyone can become a teacher.” This dichotomy is something the group will tackle.

On Friday, at a lower-income middle school, we continued conducting interviews with students and teachers. It was interesting to compare how the different demographic areas were similar yet different. Here, the Stress team gained a lot of insights from the students and found that their stress stemmed from a need to “survive” their education, rather than to reach a certain set of expectations. The Teaching team found that the teachers here also felt frustrated with the requirements of the curriculum and the lack of autonomy.

We love awkward family photos!

By the end of the trip, each team had interviewed over 30 students, teachers, administrators, and government officials. Each subject had an individual story. When these stories were retold over group meals, on car rides, and in the challengers’ journals, they were told with such energy and clarity that we couldn’t help but smile at the challengers’ empathy for their target audience.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Daily Olympics

Hey! It's Edric from One Roof, the TC Affordable Housing Team. A lot of feels now that the summer component of Tiger Challenge is over -- here are some thoughts on this wild experience.

The team making magic happen late at night -- the only way Princeton students know how to do things :)

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record for the men’s 400m sprint and won Olympic gold, my mom was poking me in the shoulder.

“Why are you crying? That isn’t you up there!”

I had tried to wipe away my tears discreetly. But of course, a mother sees all; she went on to chase me, both of us giggling hysterically, off the couch with her teasing hands.

Now, I admit: I get emotional real easily. But in light of my 10 weeks with Tiger Challenge and the One Roof team, van Niekerk’s record-setting sprint reminded me why it feels weird to “take a break” from our work until September.

In an NBC special aired before the final, the South African sprinter acknowledged that when he runs, he isn't just chasing his own dreams. He's chasing the dreams of Odessa Swarts, his mother and a talented athlete chained to her country's borders by apartheid; of Ans Botha, his 74-year-old grandmotherly coach; and of South Africa, a country that hadn't won Olympic gold since readmission in 1994 and that's trying to (as NBC put it) “forget” its troubled past.

But if anything, van Niekerk's world record forces his country and this world to wake up—not to forget, but to remember. To remember that apartheid still haunts his country’s colored peoples, and especially to remember that talent spurs even where it is oppressed. When he crossed the line, van Niekerk must’ve imagined holding his mother’s hands. And when he stood next to his world record beaming from the scoreboard, his body reminded everyone not to forget but to recognize that he, too, is South Africa—just as much in the past as in the present.

Before this year's Olympics, I wouldn’t have been able to point out van Niekerk from a crowd. Yet as I stalked him on Google in his path to gold, in him I saw some of One Roof’s end-users:

The mothers who tap their children awake an hour before others, so they won’t be late to school two townships over. (They can only afford to live next to gang-ridden schools.)

The sons who grew up fast, so their parents wouldn’t have to worry about them. The sons who found support networks and mentors in sports.

The parents who hide in corners, eating bread and water so their kids can snack on fruit.

The families who fight to give each other the chance to chase their dreams, but who still manage to chase each other off couches and find morsels of fun in life.

I see van Niekerk, and I think of the people my teammates and I look in the eyes as they tell us their stories. I think of their bravery and pain. I used to look away; who am I, a privileged Princeton student, to sit down and take two hours away from these people’s lack of free time. I was afraid to look, because part of me felt like I could never empathize with their daily toil.

I’m reminded of Mike Davis’ seminal urban studies tome published in 1990, “City of Quartz,” in which he describes a number of tactics employed by Los Angeles’ government and contracted developers to subvert the urban poor. Among these tactics was the bum-proof bench—an urban design that chased the homeless from sleeping (comfortably) in the streets.

As my team and I travelled the town to conduct interviews, I realized that the wealth of Princeton in and of itself is a “bum-proof bench.” At the beginning, I felt a part of it, because as my interviewees worked strange hours to barely scrape by living in Princeton, my only problems were my excessive sweating habit and my dorm’s lack of AC.

But through the summer, I’ve realized that there’s no way to do this project without looking these low-income residents straight in the eye. Without talking to them and confronting my privilege directly. Without seeing them as “the poor” or patronizing them as “the disadvantaged.” Otherwise, I would be building more metaphorical bum-proof benches around town, intentionally or not. Our project isn't necessarily about affordable housing; it's about addressing the real issues the poor face, everyday using housing as a fulcrum.

But through empathy and all the magic that’s come from it—especially our nine concepts for future design—we’ve gained the trust of our end-users: both the low-income affordable housing applicants and the housing entities’ employees. One administrator even mentioned how impressed he is with our work this summer, and how he’s been inspired to fix what he can as he awaits our prototypes.

Through empathy, we’ve begun to excavate and destroy the bum-proof benches longstanding in our town. And watching van Niekerk reinforces in me why we’ve developed these concepts, why we’ve embraced this courage-building Design Thinking process:

To recognize the history and potential in everyone, especially the oppressed.

To recognize the oppressed as people with talents to remember, not as people to forget.

Maybe that’s why I started tearing up. Just as Wayde van Niekerk is now tagged as the next Usain Bolt, I’m waiting in anticipation of the medals—whether subtle or just as grand—our interviewees, now our friends, will achieve as they continue in life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Keep on Designing

Hey everyone, it’s Andrew from the IT Innovation team. It’s week 9 now and our group is pretty far into the design thinking process. This has given me the chance to really reflect on this process and understand it at a very deep level. My understanding of design thinking has really grown and changed through the entirety of the summer so far.

For the first five or so weeks, we were in the research phase of the project. For me, this meant that I was conducting interviews everyday of the week, with various clients and stakeholders such as Princeton students, professors, academic administrators, and department and office heads. The interview process, while it does offer room for personal interpretation and creativity, was introduced to us as a formulaic and methodological process. I, as the interviewer, would rarely share my own insights, but really only seek to learn as much as possible from my interview subjects. This experience gave me the impression that design thinking was an academic practice, something I could think about similarly to the way I think about the problems I tackle in my coursework, and achieve success with mastery through repetition of the process.

However, these past two weeks while working with the ideation and prototyping sides of design thinking, I have realized that design thinking exceeds my prior mental image of it, and is truly a powerful tool. During ideation, we met with our mentors to pitch some of our ideas and outline the findings of our research. For better or worse, this gave us a richer human experience than we had been exposed to throughout the research process. In this meeting, there was some disagreement about the goals of our project and the objectives that were raised by our idea pitches. This created a tension in the room that will ultimately leave at least some of our stakeholders at least partially unsatisfied.

I struggled for a while to come to terms with this reality, as it pained me to accept that we would be unable to satisfy all of our mentors and stakeholders. Eventually, I overcame these idealistic expectations of making everyone happy, and finally understood the reality of the business/consulting side of design thinking. It was also in this moment that I realized that design consulting was not merely an abstract way of thinking and problem solving, but actually a way of doing business and balancing the desires of our various stakeholders. I am glad to have experienced this tension and seen a different side of the design thinking process.

On related note, I think that for better or worse, being immersed in the design thinking process all summer has allowed design thinking to really engulf my life. This became clear to me a few weeks ago, as I was spending a few days away from work. As I was travelling, I saw many problems with the world of varying scales. These were problems I have dealt with my whole life, such as minor inefficiencies in airports or abnormal conventions in foreign cities. However, for the first time in my life, I caught myself thinking about these problems like a design consultant would: observing and collecting data, noting the pain points, empathizing with all involved and thinking about how to best do more ethnographic research about the situation.

Prior to this summer, I would see phenomena in the world and merely observe and accept them. Today, I see the same wicked phenomena and think about how to best tackle the problems, and I am fully confident that I have the tools to do so. Design thinking has become my new way of life without me even noticing, and I am ecstatic that the Tiger Challenge has empowered me like this.

Thanks for reading, and please take a look at my team's page here!

Friday, July 29, 2016

Returning Not Regressing

Hey, it's Jade from the SoundSpine team checking in! It's hard to believe that week 8 is winding down with just two weeks left in the program. This summer, I've been familiarizing myself with the design thinking process and its different stages. But it has proven to be a lot more dynamic. In the early research phase, I felt like a sponge just soaking in information related to the spineboard in EMT, wilderness, military, and sports contexts. During the research phase, I enjoyed conducting interviews because they added personal elements to the project and offered specific direction during research: unfamiliar lingo, products already on the market, and patient transfer techniques in interviews guided us to read related news and journal articles.

Currently, the team has transitioned from research to the ideation phase. We may have narrowed our contexts to focus on military and sports, and we may have flushed out four of our devices on paper. But we are dabbling back in research to understand our two contexts better and refine our product sketches. Rather than see this as regressive, I can see that this second research phase offers the team more specific design criteria to work with. To get to this point, the team worked through hypothetical scenarios on the battlefield and stadium from what we heard in our interviews. Mapping users' emotional highs and lows during their interactions with our device was challenging because it was such a subjective exercise. But it was rewarding to re-focus on designing around the users with greater empathy rather than develop the 'ideal' multi-functional device. With this shift, I noticed that even the interviews themselves felt different.

"Trust the design process" has frequently come up around the firm, but this was tested during the brainstorming phase. The time had come to organize all of the findings from our readings and interviews that were written on the hundreds of post-its surroundings our office space. Some of the post-it groupings hinted at promising conclusions, whereas others seemed to only lead to obvious statements. Revisiting these simple sentences helped the team gain insights that could not have been distilled from research and interviews alone. The experience of arranging and re-arranging our findings and finally building-up from them was surprising and eye-opening. In this way, the TC program has given me a framework to organize my thoughts and what I have learned along the way, while still leaving room for intuition and surprises to lead to new findings. One of the most rewarding aspects of this summer has been the team's mentors. They offer honest and constructive feedback, but they are also gracious and understand that we as a team are still learning about a whole new process. I've enjoyed having dinner with a couple of mentors and the team. The level of support and guidance offered both inside and outside of the firm has been wonderful, and I look forward to our final presentation coming up.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


This summer brought about a lot of “firsts” for me: my first summer away from my family, my first internship, and perhaps most importantly I have to cook for myself every day.  Undeniably it has been a large period of growth, personally and professionally. 

This is no doubt due to the nature of my project.  As a member of the self-knowledge team, I spend all day delving deep into the minds of Princeton’s students and faculty, trying to figure out how they can learn about themselves.  As some sort of byproduct I find myself examining almost everything I do, for better or for worse.

I’ll assume better.

Another “first” for me is the so-called “growth mindset.”  What began as an avenue of research became a new way to think about work and life.  We always view our project as a dynamic endeavor; with each step in the design thinking process we build on our last, and analyze our wins and losses so we can move forward in the best direction. 

While a little mentally tiring (having my brain focused on self-improvement at work and at home) It is intensely rewarding.  Now, I can apply this to my personal goals as well, and I have been more productive, healthier, and happier than I’ve ever been.