January 9, 2024 | By Alesa Barron
The Ciena Solutions Challenge is a global design challenge by Digital Promise and Ciena that invites middle and high school students to design solutions that address Sustainable Development Goals within their communities. This blog post is part of a series featuring educators whose students’ projects exemplify core elements of the Challenge: creative use of technology, social purpose, student agency and leadership, and sustainability and scaling. Below are lessons on “Student Agency and Leadership” from educator Alesa Barron who facilitated Ciena Solutions Challenge project teams at Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, Georgia.
As a graphic design pathway instructor at Benjamin E. Mays High School in Atlanta, Georgia, I have the privilege of inspiring students from a range of backgrounds to consider pursuing professional creativity and to use it to change the world around them. Living in a city that’s seen everything from civil rights marches to gun violence, our local community thrives on turning lemons into lemonade. My students truly are roses growing from the concrete, with varying levels of familial support, worldly exposure, and interests.
For their projects, my students were inspired by the issues they experience most prevalently in their daily lives, with mental health and food disparities being the most popular subjects. They created podcasts like “Health Is Wealth,” a candid discussion amongst athletes about the mental health of a competitor; “Stress(Less),” videos to teach techniques to limit overthinking and alleviate daily stressors; “Accept & Connect,” an inclusive podcast that creates a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community to be seen and heard; and “Hands to Heart,”an organization that supports trauma victims and facilitates their healing through resources, community and a media campaign.
Students also created many projects that addressed hunger such as “Free Food Finder,” an app used to locate spaces and organizations that are actively providing food for those in need; “Cease4Hunger,”a service that delivers mildly damaged goods from grocery providers and delivers them directly to the underserved; and “Project F: Fair Chance,”a food kitchen, shelter, and career center for those seeking more long-term solutions to poverty.
Additional projects inspired action for global warming concerns, Black business directory services to stimulate community-based enterprises, gender-inclusive competitive spaces for collaborative fun, and DIY community improvement kits to address governmental delays/oversights in local beautification and safety.
To begin developing these ideas, students first completed a survey to put words to the issues they are most passionate about. Upon gathering the responses, we displayed and discussed them as a class. This compilation of passions enabled students who are like-minded to identify classmates who share their heart for certain issues. This is how we ultimately established our project groups for the Ciena Solutions Challenge.
Student agency is incredibly important for the motivation that is necessary later in the process. When students work on a topic connected to their interests, there is a higher chance the student will see the project as more than a grade. In instances where students were disinterested or disengaged, we could practice accountability using the surveys where they indicated their passions and interests. This kind of autonomy inspires leadership in each participant to ensure that parts of their individual visions are incorporated into the final project. Furthermore, I encouraged the students to determine their role on the team to avoid having natural leaders delegate without input from the team and/or to prevent a complete lack of leadership overall. Students assumed roles such as creative director, architect, presentation designer, researcher and project manager.
One of the most evident examples of strong student voice can be heard on the “Accept & Connect” project that was inspired by the group’s own members who quickly committed to creating a safe space for the underserved LGBTQ+ students of the school while also BEING members of this underserved population.
These students understood their groupmate’s need for gender-friendly spaces and developed a platform for him and other students like him to speak candidly and safely.
This group acted quickly to support their classmate, who created the animation of his own story (to be used in conjunction with his audio interview) for the pilot episode of this inclusive podcast, also providing future guests with the sovereignty to show up as their true selves through custom depictions.
My advice to other educators is to make space for both student empathy and practicality in student projects. As facilitators, we must both support passionate students in their ambitious plans and remind practical students that the world’s profitable businesses thrive because they solve a problem. No matter the motivation, creative solutions are the key to success.