We partner with a number of organizations at the d.school. We do so in order to bring real-world examples into the classroom as we teach design thinking to students. This year, one of those partnerships is with Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization best known for its production of the popular children's program Sesame Street. They are teaming up with this year's d.bootcamp class to address the "30 million word gap."
The term refers to the disparity between lower-income children and their more affluent peers in terms of academic preparedness. Authors Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley outlined this phenomenon in their book "Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experiences of Young American Children" and summarized their findings in a 2003 piece for American Educator titled "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3".
In that piece, they outline how, in a year (52,000 hours), a child in a professional family would be exposed to 11.2 million words, where a child in a working-class family would be exposed to 6.5 million words, and a child in a welfare family would be exposed to 3.2 million. That gap between children from professional and welfare families, they showed, continues to grow, reaching more than 30 million words in four years. The authors concluded that the problem of bridging this gap was one in urgent need of solving:
"...the longer the effort is put off, the less possible the change becomes. We see why our brief, intense efforts during the War on Poverty did not succeed. But we also see the risk to our nation and its children that makes intervention more urgent than ever."
Ten years after their piece was published, President Obama highlighted the 30-million word gap during a speech on the economy, reiterating the challenge and the detrimental effect of the preparedness gap on the health of the nation's economy and democracy. So, while it may be urgent, over a decade after Hart and Risley's findings were released, a solution has yet to be found.
So, bootcamp students were presented with this challenge:
"...design ways for Sesame Workshop to address the 30 million word gap, helping more kids reach their highest potential."
Student teams have been conducting empathy work and are now on to prototyping potential solutions. They have been confronting challenges, such as how best to interact with families around sensitive issues such as socioeconomics, parenting and early childhood development. This includes figuring out when and how to end an interview tactfully but without leaving opportunities for key insights on the proverbial table.
They are also prototyping in an area where Sesame Workshop is already doing a great deal of work. For example, I had an opportunity to speak with one student team named "Open Sesame" (get it?). The team was in the midst of developing an Elmo telephone prototype, embedding a bluetooth speaker in an Elmo plush doll. The prototype is meant to test a way for children to build on a Sesame Street viewing experience and expand their vocabulary beyond what they are exposed to in the show. The prototype worked like this: after a child watched an episode, they would receive a "call" from Elmo, following up on themes and concepts addressed in the television show.
Students, as part of the class, have been encouraged to reach out to the Sesame Workshop team. So, Open Sesame sent Sesame Workshop an e-mail, asking for their thoughts on the prototype. The collaborators came back with a few questions, such as to clarify which viewing experience the team was designing for (public television, YouTube, Netflix, etc.). They were also asked to consider more details around the "telephone" experience, such as whether the child would interact with the doll as they would a telephone or if it was merely an interaction that could be powered by a telephone without the child necessarily interacting as they would on a telephone. The team was also challenged to think of potential interactions a child could have outside of the television show context and the nature of the audio (pre-recorded, live interaction, etc.).
Open Sesame was also sent an article describing a collaboration Sesame Workshop is currently engaging in with ToyTalk around the concept of creating conversational experiences between children and Sesame Street characters.
But let's go back to Monday's studio work. During class, students received a lecture along with exercises around short-form storytelling. They were guided in an exploration of the why, what and how of the stories around their prototypes. The d.school's Media Curriculum Designer, Seamus Harte, led the class through the exercises. From whiteboard to paper, the students were called on to synthesize their work so far, exploring the story arc of their approach to the challenge.
Throughout class, students were given the chance to post questions on a large poster board. Scott Doorley, the d.school's Creative Director paid a visit to class towards the end, fielding some of the questions posed. Some of the them centered around one of the particularly difficult assignments -- that students conduct a 90-minute interview with a potential user. One student surfaced the discomfort that emerged after an hour of interviewing, recounting how one interviewee seemed to be signaling that it was time for the team to leave even though they weren't completely finished.
In response, Scott outlined the potential to move through that discomfort by changing the goal post, taking even longer than 90 minutes to interview someone -- perhaps an hour and 45 minutes. Just past the 90-minute mark, he said, it might be possible to even become best friends with an interviewee.
"It's only when you really empathize deeply with someone that you understand how these problems play into their lives," said teaching fellow and bootcamp teaching team member Erik Olesund.
Students will continue working through to the end of the quarter, with the final presentation taking place on November 21.