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Innovation Leader Teaches Design Thinking to Help Impoverished Youth Prosper

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A team of innovation catalysts took Intuit’s We Give and We Give Back program to heart. The Tucson group taught design thinking to a class of 10 Imago Dei Middle School eighth graders and facilitated the children’s Fruitful Organic Garden venture.

“It was great to see Intuit employees come together as a community and have an impact on these children,” said Katherine Gregg, a Business Operations-ERP Manager. “It has been an incredible journey.”

Imago Dei Middle School is a donation-based private school that serves boys and girls in the fifth through eighth grades. It aims to provide a comprehensive curriculum to help break the cycle of poverty and enable children to get up to speed at school. Katherine and her team pledged to raise graduation rate percentages by training students to brainstorm, interview customers and conduct experiments.

“I’m so impressed and supportive of Katherine’s work,” VP of Finance Operations Scott Beth said. “In Tucson schools, she’s igniting the curiosity of students through rapid experiments and getting more students onto honor roll.”

The middle school operates 10-hour days throughout the week with an additional three-hour session on Saturday. “Children that enter the school are bilingual and many fifth graders are operating at a kindergarten level,” Katherine said.

After getting inspiration by speaking with a friend who teaches English to children from Congo refugee camps, Katherine met the school’s[WAC1] cofounders and began her mentoring journey. First walking the class through “Business 101” she and fellow ICs took a tour of the campus and produced a program to help students prosper using Intuit’s training methods, such as D4D.

“[ICs Wynter Dixon, Gene McNinch, Toosdhi Ward, William Applegate, Aaron Eden, Melissa Fenoughty, Michelle Leon Cordova, Donald Roberts, Kristine Spengler and Michael Stirrat] are a unique bunch because we work together and don’t let each other fail,” Katherine said. “Our community is strong and we knew we could help these kids.”

In September the ICs helped the students conjure up questions, then the following week invited local contractors, a teacher and a group of gardeners, including Intuit Green Team Members Clare Lawson, Mckendry Ellis and Jason DeVincentis, for the students to interview.

“One student, Markie, was so enraptured by the leader of Intuit Green that he wanted to mimic his design for the garden,” Katherine said. “It was a chance to think and figure out what product they’d like to develop.”

Some students wanted to create an organic compost exchange; others wanted to design method cards, which provided information about growing plants in the desert, a recipe and information about the school. It wasn’t long before students generated physical prototypes.

They created a garden, but when the students experienced a 70 percent crop failure the school’s chaplain took the children on a field trip to a local farmers market and co-op to talk to master gardeners. When they returned, ICs helped the class unpack what they’d learned.

Breaking down their insights on Post-its, students wrote “positive attitude” and “interesting.” Other kids said they learned that kindness, respect and friendly service are key to a successful business.

“Everything they wrote was completely from the heart,” Katherine said. “And everyone worked together, which goes hand-in-hand with Intuit’s values.”

The class sold $254 worth of merchandise [WAC2] the first quarter. Though the crop failure rates were high, the kids did a great job at talking to customers and creating valuable products. In December students and their parents also visited Intuit’s campus.

“We wanted to show the kids that they had options in their future and that these skills go much broader,” Katherine said.

Some students met with engineers and tech writers to learn more about potential career paths.

“We have to make everything experiential with these children,” Katherine said. “If we can teach eighth graders D4D we sure as hell can teach VPs.”

Currently, five of the 10 students made honor roll and many are seeking scholarships to private high schools. Katherine said watching the kids’ journeys was indescribable. Delighted with the program’s outcome, Katherine hopes she can continue to instill hardcore translatable skills that last a lifetime.

After completing the course on May 10 the students wrote the following about their experiences: “One year from now I see the class feeling great and the community looking greener and healthier. The class will have their own functioning business and a bigger garden. Tuscan will become a greener city and a healthier one. We’ll start more organic gardens to serve and inspire others while having fun and being happy.”

Katherine will meet the next class of eighth graders in the coming weeks. She and Kristine Spengler also plan on writing a curriculum for the next semester.

“Then we’ll see what transpires,” Katherine said. “The whole experience was so much fun!”

About Imago Dei Middle School
The criterion for admission is based on students qualifying for the Federal Government Free/Reduced Lunch Program. Students are selected to attend Imago Dei using a lottery system. The cost of tuition is approximately $15,000 per year, per child. Imago Dei operates as a tuition-free school due to the economic limitations of students’ families; therefore, donor support is essential.

Most scholars face multiple life-challenges including: domestic violence and substance abuse, inadequate housing, gang involvement and incarceration of family members, difficulties finding and keeping jobs and little or no history of academic success. Founded in 2006, the school is based off a successful model from the Epiphany School in Boston.

Of the first 10 Imago Dei Middle School alumni who could have graduated from high school this year, seven graduated from high school; three of which were admitted to a four-year college on scholarships and four who plan to attend community college. One graduate earned her GED and is employed and the other two remain in high school and are working toward graduation.