A classroom between two worlds

  Melissa Pelochino (right) and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro (left) stand before their class, a group of roughly 65 students projected to them from Mumbai, India. (Emi Kolawole)

Clap once if you can hear me.

Clap. 

Clap twice if you can hear me.

Clap. Clap. 

Leticia and Melissa smiled, satisfied that they could be heard and understood by their students.  The duo stooped slightly to be seen by the class of roughly 65 grade-school children. Guiding the students through a full design-thinking crash course was one of their last tasks of the day.

The students were fresh, eager and ready to receive instruction. A third person, Rajendra Ramesh Bendre -- "Raj" for short -- also stood before the class, ready to provide assistance. Raj had been working with Melissa for roughly three months to bring design thinking to his local community.

Local, in this case, is Mumbai, India.

This was a classroom split between two worlds. In one world was Raj standing in an auditorium at Nalanda Public School in Mulund, a suburb of Mumbai. Cut-out letters hung high on a red and blue wall at the back of the room, spelling the words "Grandparents' Day" . The students sat on a tiered floor facing Raj and a camera. They were packed in tightly to see the screen where Melissa and Leticia were projected to them from their world -- the d.school at Stanford University. A laptop, high-speed WiFi connection and Skype projected Melissa Pelochino, a d.school fellow and veteran teacher, and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro, a Stanford lecturer and alumna, to their students.

"The best way to learn design thinking is to just do it," said Melissa brightly. The fact that she couldn't remember the number of meetings and appointments she had attended that day -- a day that started at 4 a.m. -- didn't stop her from matching the students' morning energy.

Okay, clap once if you can hear me.

Clap.

They were off. The students interviewed one another, exploring their partner's breakfast routines.

"Does anyone have any questions," Raj asked of the students roughly a third of the way through the project. One student stood and walked quickly towards the camera and Raj off screen. She wore a striped shirt, but the details of her face -- pixelated by the quality of the video -- were impossible for her American instructors to make out. After a brief interaction with Raj that neither Melissa nor Leticia could hear, the student sat back down, disappearing into the blurry crowd of unidentifiable faces.

Melissa Pelochino (left) and Melissa Pelochino (right) and Leticia Britos Cavagnaro (left) are seen on a projection screen at the Nalanda Public School in Mumbai India. (Photo by Rajendra Ramesh Bendre)

The exercise went on mostly in silence. There was no music, which customarily plays at the d.school during heads-down time. When called on to listen, the students were obediently quiet.

Then, there was confusion. The students weren't sure what it meant to sketch an idea. Did they need to write down words or draw pictures? Did they need to do both?

They can write it down or draw it, said Leticia, crouching so her face could be seen through the laptop camera. She mimed the act of drawing a picture to help translate her words. The students appeared to nod, but it was impossible to be sure they all understood. The video quality made direct feedback to the U.S. instructors all but impossible. Aside from the occasional giggle and the bubble of children's conversation, there was little else to indicate the students' level of involvement or interest. They continued to explore their ideas on paper.

If you can hear me, clap twice.

Clap. .... Clap. 

The veil of disciplined quiet began to lift and the students' conversations became louder and started to bleed over the instruction. Creative energy was taking hold. Eventually, the students were charged with fetching materials they would use to build their prototypes.

"Rushing is not allowed," warned Raj as the students began to walk towards and past the camera to an area off screen  -- a place unseen by their American teachers. Instead, Melissa and Leticia were left staring at an empty room littered with papers and other indistinguishable objects until the students trickled back in.

If you can hear me, clap twice.

Clap ........ Clap.

The claps were faint. Students slapped their thighs, tapped the ground or ignored the instruction, reluctant to let go of their materials in that moment between an idea and its realization.

If you can hear me, clap twice again.

This time, the response was slightly louder, but still faint. The instructors were in a losing battle with the prototypes.

"Raj, tell them to share what they build with their partner," said Leticia, trying to leverage Raj's flesh-and-blood presence in Mumbai to accomplish what she and Melissa could not, moving the students on to the next step.

"Leticia, just give me a minute. I have to get them to be quiet," said Raj, finding it difficult to hear his American counterparts over the din of excited students.

Prototyping supplies rest on a table at the Nalanda Public School in Mumbai India. The table and its location remained a mystery to the U.S. instructors as they guided students through the design project. (Photo by Rajendra Ramesh Bendre)

Eventually the children were given a chance to present their prototypes to their teachers. Four students were called up to the microphone to share what they had designed with their teachers half a world away. Some of the students could be heard and understood over the microphone, while others could not. Melissa and Leticia offered a thank you to every student when they finished.

Finally, the group was called on to provide their feedback of the entire process in the "I Like / I Wish" format. Say something you like, and something you wish.

"I liked the idea of my partner," said one student, going on to describe a breakfast experience his partner had designed -- the details of which were lost to the poor microphone quality.

"I've never been to something so unique," said another student.

"I liked this experience because we had to work as a team," offered another student.

Even one of the roughly eight parents and three teachers present took to the microphone to offer feedback on how each had come to reconsider his own breakfast experience.

There were no wishes from Mumbai, but there was one wish from Stanford.

"I wish we were there with you," Melissa said.

Then, it was time to dismiss a class half a world away.

The students brought their hands together one last time to applaud their teachers, and then...

Click!

...they were gone.