Design Tech High School’s mission is to build the understanding in students that the world can be a better place and that they can be the ones to make it happen. The school teaches design thinking which is an empathy-based problem solving method. One of the ways students learn design thinking is through the school’s intersession program. Students take a break from core academics for a period of two weeks, four times a year. The intersession days are split into two sections: design lab in the morning, where students are taught design thinking and are able to practice the method in a multitude of different projects, and exploration classes in the afternoon. These classes encourage the surrounding community to teach students anything from visual arts and cooking to rock climbing and wearable technology from this the students gain real world experience and explore topics that interest them.
Right before the November intersession, a staff member at the school, Robert Bolt, came into one of our classes and introduced the idea of going to Puerto Rico to bring design thinking to a school located there. When pitching his idea, he acknowledged that Hurricane Maria had caused a lot of damage to the Puerto Rican infrastructure and the economy, but with most of the relief work already focused on these issues, he felt it would be better suited to our skills if we provided educational relief to a local school, as it would be a perfect opportunity to help rebuild a school with design thinking as part of their curriculum.
The idea was such an amazing opportunity that 12 students quickly signed up for it. The November intersession was spent figuring out how to make the trip a reality and searching for a school to work with. Luckily, the Rainforest Inn offered to let us stay for free, making this trip possible. After many hours of planning our trip and researching Puerto Rico, the January intersession rolled around, and all 12 students, Bolt, and Alma, a parent of one of the students, boarded the plane to Puerto Rico.
While in Puerto Rico, we worked with Escuela Francisco Manrique Cabrera, or FMC. The first day we were there, we introduced ourselves, toured the school, and danced with the students. The next day, we taught a workshop centered on design thinking, challenging the students to design a perfect wallet for their partner. The students were very engaged, and came up with amazing prototypes for the challenge. At the end of the workshop, Glenda, one of the students in the workshop, told us that she would never forget what we taught her. There are honestly no words to describe how it made us feel, knowing that we had only spent three hours with them, and they were already asking tons of questions about design thinking and how they could make it part of their school, showing us that it was definitely possible to fulfill d.tech’s mission of changing the world.
Later on in the trip, we attended a symposium focused on bringing computer science programs to all schools in Puerto Rico. We participated in brainstorming and refining the framework for the CS4ALL initiative, and presented our ideas in front of the entire audience. This initiative was supported by many local universities and businesses, as well as the Department of Education and Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico. It was an amazing trip full of change, both in Puerto Rican schools, and in our own lives.
We are so grateful for Bill and Renée’s hospitality in letting our group stay at the Rainforest Inn five nights for free. Without this, we may have never been able to get ourselves to Puerto Rico and work with the students and staff at FMC. Before arriving to the Rainforest Inn, we all had low expectations for the housing. We’ve heard many horror stories about the conditions in Puerto Rico and seen many pictures that brought us to believe that Puerto Rico is in ruins, creating the idea that the Inn would just be free accomodations to sleep in, and nothing else.
Contrary to our expectations, the Rainforest Inn is is full of luscious greenery, creating a relaxing, open environment for the 14 of us every day after we got back from a day of work. We got to relax inside the comfort of two of the villas on the property. They were full of beautiful artwork, and zen-like design. The ambiance made it incredibly easy to relax and unwind after a busy day in town. In our free time, we explored the grounds of the Inn, including the beautiful hike into the El Yunque Rainforest, which leads to a waterfall with a swimming hole and astonishing views of the forest. With the damage Hurricane Maria caused, the canopy in the rainforest is almost entirely gone, meaning we could see all the way to the ocean. Usually, the canopy is so thick, it’s impossible to see past the first line of trees, so it was a unique viewing experience for our group.
Hopefully, this trip marks the starting point of a lasting partnership between d.tech and the Rainforest Inn. Being surrounded by the rainforest and working with Bill and Renée has taught us so much. Many students expressed an interest in going back to Puerto Rico for a gap year and working as a volunteer or intern at the Rainforest Inn. In the future, working with the Rainforest Inn, will allow us to maintain a relationship that is beneficial for d.tech students’ learning experiences, and more importantly, the Puerto Rican community.