As an experience designer, research that involves understanding and communicating the student journey is my favorite. In that journey are the key motivators and insights into student behavior. Surprisingly many tend to skip this research phase. I think this happens for a few reasons. One, we think we already know. Why ask when I can just assume? It’s less time consuming and of course, I’m probably  right anyway! If you take this point of view, you will design something for that little world in your head and be left wondering why no one is responding to your great new initiatives.

Rule #1: Don’t assume anything.

A big reason we don’t ask students is that students they can be unreliable. They are in process and their lack of experience changes their opinion from day to day. We also don’t ask because we don’t know how to get useful information from youth. It is incredibly hard and requires some serious finesse. To help with this, I recommend keeping the discussion or survey centered on the student’s personal experience with a specific situation. You are simply wanting to know what they were thinking when x happened: what they saw, felt, and did.

Rule #2: Keep the conversation within the student’s realm of experience.

Remember too, the core customer in education is the student – not parents, industry partners, state regulators, or even the community. Understanding what motivates students, why they make certain decisions, and what they think those in charge are telling them to do is critical to unlocking their behavior and shaping it. Students rely heavily on cues from the school environment. Find out if what they are being told is actually what they are hearing.

An example of tapping into the student journey below comes from interviews with local minority students. Some had already graduated and their hindsight and reflection provided me with valuable information for the design process.

Above is Randy’s story. As you can see he was getting cues about who he could be and the path he thought everyone was telling him to take. Football was his “ticket” to success. When he was in school, there was (and still is) a huge push to get minority boys to play football. This starts early in elementary school. Each boy has at least two to three male role models as coaches. Relational bonds run deep and continue through high school. Football becomes more than a ticket out of poverty. It becomes the surrogate family. This powerful approach meets strong emotional and professional needs. In my community this is significant as almost 75% of youth aged 5 and 15 live in poverty according to the most recent census data. Research on poverty also tells us that these kids are exposed to more violence, trauma, and not surprisingly suffer from higher incidence of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Playing football isn’t just sport; it’s survival.

What is striking about the football strategy, mostly driven by a need for human connection, is that it works extremely well to engage youth early. Students learn skills that go beyond the traditional classroom setting: team work, goal setting, motivation, and perseverance.  Students also develop surrogate relationships needed to overcome stressful home lives and absentee parents.  However, as a career strategy, the odds are not so great. Of the over 1 million students that play high school football, only 6.5% or roughly 71,000 will participate in the NCAA. Here’s the rub. Of that 71,000 there were only 255 individuals drafted from the NCAA in 2014. Place those 255 openings against the explosive tech industry where IT jobs are expected to grow at a rate of 22% in the next 5 years resulting in almost 700,000 new jobs, and a solid career strategy becomes clear. Tech trumps the NFL.

For school districts with a high percentage of students in poverty, developing school to tech career strategies should be a no-brainer. It is imperative that we begin to nudge students  to life changing/community changing opportunites. Yes, keep playing football, but the career narrative must change.


So the question becomes…how we do we create a shift in thinking so that students choose to engage in technical endeavors?

Technology is wide open. Every student can find their place from creative design in animation, gaming, web development to systems thinking in information technology, programming, data management and more. Tech should be the new ticket.