Prototyping Education Programs for Refugees

woman with sketch notes

This year, over 100,000 unaccompanied children will cross the US-Mexico border in search of safety in the United States. These children, some as young as 4 years old, have endured a 1,500-mile journey atop freight trains under the “care” of smugglers to escape violence in their Central American home countries. Last week, I had the opportunity to join the Field Innovation Team to develop programming for a center in San Antonio, Texas that houses some of these young refugees.

The Field Innovation Team is a non-profit organization that deploys cross-disciplinary teams of volunteers to deliver real-time innovation throughout the lifecycle of disasters. I felt honored to join such a brilliant and dedicated team in tackling a small piece of this refugee crisis. Over the course of two weeks, we rapidly tested a variety of programs in art, technology, science and even improv. The outcome? A book of education programs for refugees that can be used with youth in crises and disasters anywhere.

One of those activities is a shortened version of IDEAco’s own City X Project, which focuses on empathy and ideation as a tool for empowerment. Our friends at Puentek, an innovation lab on wheels, translated the toolkit materials into Spanish before I arrived in San Antonio and, over the course of a week, the FIT team helped test several iterations of shortened City X Project activities with over 40 refugees, ages 6-17.

The Field Innovation Team is working to complete an updated version of the activity booklet for youth facing crisis situations, and we’ll let you know when it’s available online.

Huge thanks to FIT for including me and the City X Project in this initiative!

City X Project at Creativity Day

web-creativity-day-3d-printersOn Saturday the City X Project visited the Children’s Creativity Museum of San Francisco as a Featured Partner at their annual Creativity Day event. Our workshop was featured alongside the likes of GoldieBlox and LEGO Master Builders from LEGOLAND California. Throughout the day we had over 40 children and their parents attend six City X workshops to learn about how 3D modeling and 3D printing can be used to solve global challenges… and we had a ton of fun!

web-creativity-day-girlAt the participants’ first stop we gathered beneath a giant cardboard spaceship hanging from the ceiling to listen to an urgent transmission from the Mayor of City X, a remote city being built on another planet. Next, kids used their imaginations and clay to model inventions to solve the problems of City X.

Clay models in hand, we moved to the room next door where students got to see Cube 3D Printers in action. We talked about the technology behind 3D printing and Dara Dotz from Made In Space shared stories about how this technology is being used by real astronauts in space today. Finally, our amazing volunteers taught participants to use Tinkercad – free 3D modeling software available online – to create digital version of their own clay inventions. Although our team usually runs the workshop with kids between the ages of 8 and 12, we had a lot of younger kiddos come through on Saturday proving just how intuitive 3D modeling can be.

Tinkercad model of 3D invention

I was particularly impressed by this invention, created by a 5-year-old.

A big thanks to The Creativity Museum for inviting us to be part of this incredible event!

The City X Project Toolkit for Educators is Here!

iPad displaying Prototype and Test graphic in classroom

After 120,000 miles of travel and over 500 student inventions from workshops on three continents, we are delighted to release the City X Project toolkit for educators!

This toolkit, available as a free download at, includes:

Since the beginning, our goal for the City X Project has been to release a freely available toolkit that enables other educators to run the workshop. We’ve spent the last 18 months developing and testing our program around the world and now it’s available to everyone as an Open Education Resource.

If you’re an educator, bring City X Project to your school, museum, or library by downloading the toolkit! If you’re an organization interested in licensing our curriculum, we’d love to hear from you.

And when you run a workshop, our team would absolutely love to see photos on Twitter (tweet @CityXProject) or on Facebook!

Design Thinking with Kids: 5 Great Bay Area Projects

I love working in the Bay Area. Not only is it home to world-renowned designers at places like Stanford’s and IDEO, but it also happens to serve as base to some of the most inspiring projects in design education, project-based learning, and design thinking with kids. Here are just a few that have blown me away with their passion and creativity in the last year:

KIDmob is a mobile firm focused on project-based learning for kids.

KIDmob is a mobile firm focused on project-based learning for kids.

1. KIDmob

KIDmob is the mobile, kid-integrated design firm. We are a Bay Area not for profit organization that believes design education is an opportunity for creative engagement and community empowerment. We take our passion on the road to bring our innovative approach to local communities around the world.

KIDmob first reached out to our team last summer for an initiative they were calling “Friendship Month.” Their energy and passion for action in programs from San Francisco to Haiti are contagious.

We'll be hosting mini workshops at the Children's Creativity Museum in San Francisco May 3. Register here.

We’ll be hosting mini workshops at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco May 3. Register here.

2. The Children’s Creativity Museum

The Children’s Creativity Museum is an interactive art and technology museum for kids. Our mission is to nurture the 3C’s of 21st-century skills – Creativity, Collaboration, and Communication – in all youth and families. We believe that the ability to think critically, collaborate broadly, communicate effectively and generate and prototype multiple solutions, is the core of a 21st-century education.

The Creativity Museum played an important role in the development of the City X Project by sharing their experiences and allowing us to observe their design thinking programs. We’re excited to be collaborating with them again as a featured partner at this year’s Creativity Day. You can also register for a City X Project “mini-workshop.”

3. K12 Lab Network

We inspire and develop the creative confidence of educators and support edu innovators catalyzing new models for teaching and learning.

An initiative of Stanford’s, the K12 Lab is home to a variety of innovative projects linking design thinking to education. For project ideas and inspiration check out their wiki and especially their awesome design thinking for educators toolkit.

4. Project H Design

Teaching youth to design and build their future with heart, hands, and hammers.

Project H Design, based in Berkeley, develops innovative approaches to design-based education. Over the last five years they’ve amassed a toolbox of open-source lesson plans I would encourage every educator to look at. You can also learn more about the story of the Project H founders in this inspiring documentary.

5. Galileo Learning

Galileo is a summer camp with a mission to “create a world of fearless innovators.” Galileo’s founder Glenn Tripp is an inspiring educator who has meticulously designed curriculum for project-based learning with a focus on innovation.

5 of our Favorite Projects from SXSWedu

It’s been a jam-packed week here in Austin,TX at SXSWedu, the energetic educational sibling to the likes of SXSW Music and SXSW Interactive. Here are five of the best projects at SXSWedu that caught our attention this week.

1. Project MASH

Project MASH logoOn Tuesday morning – unfortunately at the same time as my talk announcing the release of the City X Toolkit – The Pearson Foundation officially announced Project MASH. Project MASH is a digital learning network for teachers and students, and the organizations that serve them. Supported by the Pearson Foundation’s New Learning Institute, Project MASH introduces you to learning experiences that involve real-world problems, as well new ways to solve them. We’re very proud to say that City X is one of the featured projects in Project MASH. We encourage anyone looking to share educational resources with teachers to check out this site.

2. SparkFun

Gadgets on a table at SXSWedu

The SparkFun table at the SXSWedu Playground.

SparkFun Electronics has been around for a long time but at the SXSWedu Playground I finally had the opportunity to get a sense of the full range of projects this incredible company offers. I can’t wait to see what we can do with some of these kids in our programs for high school students.

Check this out from the SparkFun website:

SparkFun is an online retail store that sells the bits and pieces to make your electronics projects possible. Whether it’s a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat tracking device, our products and resources are designed to make the world of electronics more accessible to the average person.

3. Quandary

On Wednesday Peter Stidwill gave a talk on his game Quandary, an online game that teaches ethics by asking students to solve the problems of people building a new civilization. Quandary is a project of the Learning Games Network, an organization that came out of the MIT Education Arcade and my own alma mater, the Games Learning Society program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. If you like the City X story, you should definitely check out this free game.

4. Co.Lab

On Thursday morning I made it to the Convention Center for an early 9am talk on educational games and I’m so glad I did! There I learned about Co.Lab, the first startup accelerator focused specifically on educational games. Co.Lab just began working with their second cohort of startups and they look very promising. It’s great to see games being increasingly woven into the edtech space.

5. MakerKids

Cube 3D printers at the MakerKids table at the SXSWedu Playground.

Cube 3D printers at the MakerKids table at the SXSWedu Playground.

Finally, I have to mention MakerKids, another great exhibit in the SXSWedu Playground. Run by Andy Forest and Jenn Turliock in Toronto, Canada, MakerKids is one of the only makerspaces for kids in the world. I got to hang out with them at their exhibit in the Playground on Wednesday and help people learn to 3D model and print. Check out the great work they’re doing alongside other kids’ makerspaces like the Omaha Children’s Museum, the Los Angeles Makerspace, and, SparkTruck.

Of course, these five resources are only the tip of the iceberg! I look forward to sharing more here as I follow up with other wonderful educators and innovators I had the opportunity to meet at SXSWedu. Follow me on Twitter for more updates!

Empowering Youth Changemakers at SXSWedu

SXSWedu Logo

We’ll see you there!

Based on current trends in education, it is estimated that by 2020 there will be close to 1.2 million job openings in the US tech industry but only 400,000 people with the skills necessary to fill those positions. If we want to continue to grow a thriving technology industry in this country we need to reframe the way we approach technology education right now.

Think back to your childhood. Do you remember that kid in your class who had to know how everything worked? You know, the one with the Erector Set and broken electronics scattered throughout his room? He’s probably a successful engineer or CTO now. But what about the other kids? Not every child is going to have a desire to dismantle a microwave for the sheer love of electronics or code a website just to learn CSS. And that’s okay. That doesn’t mean, however, that he or she cannot be a great engineer or coder. That child may just need to have the problem framed differently.

One unexpected discovery we’ve come across with the City X Project is the tremendous difference a story can make in STEM learning. Not every student we work with is initially intrigued by the technologies we use but we found that by giving students a clear purpose for their learning – even if that purpose is solving the problem of a fictional character in an imaginary City X – they are socially motivated to engage. In developing our projects it is always important to me to shift the focus of conversation from the technology or skill we’re learning (“the means”) to the reason we’re learning it (“the end”). That’s why we approach STEM by talking about the changemaker mindset, putting the purpose before the tech.

Now, as always, innovation is the ticket to economic success. Standing on the shoulders of incredible organizations like Code For America, tomorrow’s technology leaders will succeed through purpose-driven innovation empowered by technological expertise. If we’re going to drastically increase the appeal of STEM education to students of all types we need to broaden our approach to “technology education” to include not only the “how” but the “why.” Not only the techies, but the social innovators. It’s time for us all to adopt a changemaker mindset.

City X Project Director Libby Falck will be giving a talk at SXSWedu Playground on Tuesday, March 4, at 10:30am. Visit SXSWedu for more information.

Stanford’s Design Process for Kids: Teaching Big Picture Problem Solving

Most educational systems were founded in a time when “learning” meant “rote memorization.” Today, however, we live in an exponentially changing world in which success demands creativity and innovation. Simple facts are available at the click of a button but connecting ideas to draw new conclusions in not so easy. Unfortunately, innovation is still not a valued learning objective in most schools today. Increasingly, we see the design process being used for adults, but where is the design process for kids?

The City X workshop is designed to get kids thinking like problem solvers. We do this using three ingredients:

  1. New technologies to excite and inspire.
  2. The fictional story of “City X” to make things fun.
  3. The framework of the design process to provide structure.

The Design Process, for Kids

This post is about #3: Design. After working with facilitators from the Stanford Design School ( at Singularity University last summer, I was impressed with the simplicity and effectiveness of their design thinking model. I wanted to explore how we might use this to empower kids to be changemakers who help solve our world’s problems. While developing the City X workshop we incorporated lessons shared from The Children’s Creativity Museum, Stanford’s k12 lab, and a variety of other maker-focused education initiatives to adapt the design thinking model to our 8-10 year old audience.

That is how this:

Stanford Design Process

credit: Stanford

Became this:

Stanford Design Process and the City X Project Workshop Overview

City X Project Workshop Overview

Here are some of our key takeaways so far:


For many 8-year-olds, empathy is a difficult concept. We begin by defining empathy and sharing a few examples. In the City X workshop, each child is assigned a “citizen” of City X  (the first city on a new planet) who has a particular problem that needs to be solved. We have the kids think about how their citizens are feeling by circling options from a list of words. They then share their citizens’ problems and feelings with the group.

For more ideas about empathy education I encourage you to look at Ashoka Empathy Initiative’s Start Empathy project.

The City X Project Designer Workbook


This is by far the most difficult step to implement with kids. Initially, we tried adapting activities from the bootcamp but we ultimately found it was easiest to scale this step down to the following:

“My citizen needs me to solve a __________ problem.”

We found that this language creates a unique opportunity to discuss the difference between personal problems and social issues and how the two relate to each other. For this part of the workshop we give the kids a list of major social problems (transportation, education, energy, etc.) and then ask them to circle one or more social problems that apply to their character’s personal problem. They then complete the above statement.


Brainstorming! Most kids are pretty familiar with this activity but, based on recommendations from the design program facilitator at the Creativity Museum, we reduced the’s eight brainstorming rules down to the following four:

  1. Don’t judge.
  2. Go for quantity.
  3. Build on the ideas of others.
  4. Encourage wild ideas.

We introduce these rules, paper, and markers and let the kids go! Two other rules that have come in handy for us are:

  1. Don’t invent anything that already exists.
  2. No ideas from adults – kids only!

Brainstorming in the City X Project

Prototype & Test.

Now comes the really fun part! We begin by asking the kids to describe prototyping and we discuss the importance of the cycle of testing and iterating an idea. After everyone has an understanding of why this is important to the design process we hand out clay and ask the kids to create a model of their favorite idea from the Ideate stage. As they build, the workshop facilitators serve as “testers” by walking around the room and asking kids questions about their inventions.


The final step in the bootcamp is Storytelling: how to share your design with a compelling and memorable narrative. With our time constraints in the classrooms we knew we would have to simplify this step for our kids and the answer for how to do so came surprisingly easily.

Although 3D printing is typically used for prototyping, after our first few workshops experimenting with this technology in schools it became apparent that, in the classroom setting, 3D printers just don’t make sense for that stage of the design process. They were too limited, too technical, too slow. Instead we discovered a new application: using 3D printing, our kids were able to print creations from all over the world, tangibly connecting with other children in a way that has never before been possible. Sharing is where the 3D component of the City X Project made sense.

To begin, we ask the kids to look at their clay creations and image how they would share their idea with someone else. Other than taking a picture, they’re often stumped. We explain that new technologies like 3D modeling and printing enable people to collaborate instantly all over the world. We then ask them to create “blueprints,” sketching their clay models from several perspectives (top, side, and front). We demonstrate creating a simple model in Autodesk’s free 123D Design software, answer questions and then let the kids loose with the software. The kids pick it up astonishingly fast. (We’ll share more tips and tricks for 3D modeling with kids in a future blog post.)

So there’s the City X Project design thinking framework! We hope you can use what we’ve learned to help inspire your own kids to innovate. Happy designing!

City X at CityCamp Palo Alto

I’m excited to share that this Saturday, June 1st I’ll be presenting the City X Project at CityCamp Palo Alto, an event of the first-ever National Day of Civic Hacking. This event is an inspiring initiative that is bringing together communities from across the country to “provide citizens an opportunity to do what is most quintessentially American: roll up our sleeves, get involved and work together to improve our society.”

featured-citycamppaThe tools and ideas that drive civic hacking are foundational for the City X Project. Using the design process as a common framework, we’re working with kids around the world to imagine and model a better city (and world) for the future. Our goal is to empower kids everywhere with the knowledge that they can design solutions that make the world a better place.

A particular focus for City X is how culture influences our assumptions about how problems should be solved. We specifically use 3D modeling and 3D printing technologies with the kids because they enable a form of wordless sharing. Because we’re working with 8-10 year olds who often don’t speak the same language, this enables the kids to tangibly connect their ideas through physical objects rather than words, regardless of where those ideas originated. In our increasingly interconnected world, we believe introducing kids to their future civic hacking collaborators around the globe is a really great thing.

Want to learn more? Join me this weekend in Palo Alto. I’ll be wrapping up a day of fantastic speakers with a talk at 5:55pm in Lytton Plaza. But don’t just come for that, of course. There’s also food, music, hackathons, art and makerspaces, a farmer’s market and more from 11am to 7pm. Check out all the details at

My talk details:
Libby Falck at CityCamp Palo Alto
Palo Alto, California
Lytton Plaza

Hope to see you there!

City X at the Children’s Creativity Museum

The City X Project focuses on kids, creativity, and empowerment. It was a natural fit for us to partner with The Children’s Creativity Museum, an interactive art and technology museum for kids located in downtown San Francisco, to run a portion of our City X Project workshop. The Creativity Museum says this about themselves:

We envision a world where creativitycollaboration and communication inspire new ideas and innovative solutions. We believe that the success of the next generation will hinge not only on what they know, but also on their ability to think and act creatively as global citizens.

Yes, yes, and yes!


Here at City X, we love the Creativity Museum. I’ve been spending some time there over the past few weeks learning about their design programming and running small test workshops for City X. One of their tenets is that creativity doesn’t happen in a vacuum. They’re not kidding about that, and they’ve been truly wonderful to collaborate with.

A couple weeks ago Brent, a colleague from HacKidemia, and I sat in on one of the museum’s design field trips with a class of second graders. The facilitator walked students through the design process using a very similar framework to City X’s December workshops. Later in the week I met with Heather, the developer of that program. Her focus is to unlock creativity and encourage divergent thinking by introducing kids to the design process. She emphasizes brainstorming, prototyping, user feedback, and pitches (recorded with flipcams) in her workshops. Like us, she’s had difficulty implementing the empathy and definition steps of the design process with young kids. (Tips? We’d love to hear about it!) On Saturday I set up in the museum’s annex with some iPads and ran two short workshops to begin testing the City X story.

A few lessons learned:

Raphael designing a "mini sun" to keep the citizens of City X warm in their ship.

Raphael designing a “mini sun” to keep the citizens of City X warm in their ship.

Basic workshop materials.

Basic workshop materials.

Just for us, the museum even hung this cool spaceship they had from the ceiling to inspire the kids!

Just for us, the museum even hung this cool spaceship they had from the ceiling to inspire the kids!

Another big thanks to the Children’s Creativity Museum for being so open and helpful! City X looks forward to collaborating with you again soon.

The City X Project at Startup Weekend Transmedia SF

I spent today recovering from an incredible Startup Weekend in San Francisco around the theme of transmedia (if you’re not familiar with the term, transmedia refers to stories that are told across multiple platforms). Since The Marshmallow Project is a workshop, online platform and interactive installation, it definitely fits the bill. Nonetheless, I wasn’t planning on working on it over the weekend (I thought I’d try this thing called a “break”). Nope! As Friday night project pitches came to a close I figured why not? and joined the end of the line to present our work. A few minutes later I found myself surrounded by a team of about ten brilliant people and absolutely no idea what to do with them…

Awesome team of brilliant people!

Awesome team of brilliant people!

The point of a Startup Weekend is to find a team and develop a business in 52 hours (Friday-Sunday). Since most of our work takes weeks of planning and scheduling with schools I had no clue what we could do for The Marshmallow Project in that amount of time, but since the theme of the weekend was story (and so far our workshop has absolutely no story), I figured we could work on that.

After much deliberation the team settled on the idea of fictional “City X.” The story is that a colonization ship has just landed on Mars and the settlers have sent back a map. Now it’s the job of the kids in The Marshmallow Project workshops to help them solve the various problems they’re encountering on Mars. We spent the weekend developing characters and problems for the kids to solve, as well as printable components to tie the world to 3D printing. On Sunday morning our teammate Jim brought in his 8-year-old grandson Alex. We told Alex the story of City X and a character named Cooper. Since landing Cooper hasn’t been feeling very well and we asked Alex to design a solution for him. Using Tinkercad, he came up with this “Space Germ Detector.” (Check out the video of him designing it.)

The 3D model created by Alex.

The 3D model created by Alex.

Although Alex is undoubtedly a very smart kid, the structure given by the City X story seemed to help him come up with a solution much more quickly than the significantly more open framework we used at Franklin Elementary in December. I’m definitely looking forward to continuing to test how we can use story to motivate the kids to come up with great ideas!

Overall it was a fantastic weekend with lots of learning! HUGE THANKS to everyone who jumped on board to help!