Bringing Industry to the Classroom

“Our two most precious commodities are our children and water.”
Ronald Fay, Retired Hydrologist and Industry Expert honoree
Michael DiTullo, Industrial Designer

Last night, our school board recognized the contributions of the industry experts who have given their time and expertise to inspire our students to change the world. Each of the individuals honored has made a tangible difference in the educational experience of our students. We often talk about making school relevant, engaging, and meaningful, but when you’re studying the human body and two medical students from UCSD are providing you with information and then giving feedback on your human body system adaptation prototype, relevant is the name of the game. When students are using design thinking to develop a better student chair and an industrial designer talks with the class about his own designs, and the importance of being human-centered, engagement is at an all-time high. And when 3rd graders studying the local lagoon to solve environmental problems it faces have an opportunity to participate in hands-on learning with a USGS Hydrologist to determine salinity levels, they are able to make meaningful connections to the science they study and the local problems in their community.

18 industry experts were honored last night. 18 individuals who see that the future

Chris Delehanty, Tech Director, Ronald Fay, Retired USGS Hydrologist, & me

success of our community, our country, resides in the students we teach today. 18 experts who listened to the ideas of children, and honored those ideas, and inspired them to keep ideating. 18 experts who showed students that their voices are heard, and their ideas are meaningful, and their learning is important. To each of them, and all the others that will be joining this list, I thank you.

To learn about all the experts honored, please read our presentation.
(This blog post was also posted on our district Design Thinking website)
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Students’ Design Thinking Skills Sets Them Up for a Successful Future

Yesterday I received this email from three 6th grade students:

Dear Dr. Spencer,

                As sixth grade students, we have been given the design challenge to enhance our school experience. There are problems ranging from balls left in the field to bathroom catastrophes. We thought that you would be a great person to interview because you are the Executive Director of Innovation and Design. 

So today I happily set aside my desk work and traveled over to the school to talk to the students. I can honestly say, I’m not sure who learned more from our experience: them or me.

As they had shared in the email, the students have been given the challenge of enhancing the school experience. In Del Mar, a K-6 district, our vision states that we are in “unrelenting pursuit of the extraordinary school experience” and now, so our these 6th grade students. Their teacher, who has been trained at both Nueva School’s Design Thinking Institute and Stanford’s, is using her Quest elective class to provide the students with the skills and strategies necessary to utilize the design thinking process. Her focus is spot on. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford, explains. “The old way was about disciplines,” Hackett told Fortune Magazine in September. “The new way will be about projects and understanding what people want.”

During my conversation with the students, we discussed the school, and the needs I saw as rising to the top. But then the conversation shifted, and the students became intrigued more with my job, and the goal of our district to bring design thinking experiences to all students, and not just those lucky enough to have their teacher. One student then remarked, “What happens to us in middle school? They don’t do these things there, do they?” Although I wish I had a better answer for them, all I could say was “not yet…” They continued pressing me. “How will we handle the homework load in middle school? We have a reduced homework load now.”

And so we started to analyze the skills that the students are receiving, and how those skills would translate to middle school (and life!) success. Homework load? No problem! Within these design thinking challenges, their teacher has taught them:

  • Backwards Planning: Just like homework, design thinking challenges have deadlines that must be met. But unlike assigned homework, backwards planning ensures students know how to prioritize their work load based on estimated work time, complexity of task, and due date.
  • Questioning: Design thinking requires students to define the problem that needs to be addressed. The questions they are formulating are complex, and get to the root of a problem so that they can better ideate and prototype solutions. This means they’ll have a better understanding of what information they need to complete their work. Furthermore, they’ll have the confidence to ask clarifying questions of their teachers.
  • Prioritization: When prototyping possible design thinking solutions, a lot of elements must come together. It can be easy to get distracted by wanting to make a prototype pretty, or add “just one more thing.” Learning how to prioritize actions based on a needs statement will also help them figure out if they should start their math homework due tomorrow before or after writing their English essay due next week.
  • Iteration: One of the most important concepts students learn in the design thinking process is that the iteration process is not a one time thing. Iterate, prototype, seek feedback, and do it again…and again… and maybe even again. Failure is not a cause for meltdown, but just an opportunity to iterate again. If you doubt me, just watch Audri and his Rube Goldberg machine process!


Carole Bilson, President of the Design Management Institute, states, “There’s a lot of observation, listening and research as you are developing products and solutions.” Evelyn Huang, Director of Design Thinking and Strategy at Capital One Labs, explains that Design Thinking, a “human-centered methodology, coupled with a ‘fail fast’ attitude, allows us to quickly identify, build, and test our way to success. We spend less time planning, more time doing, and, above all else, challenge ourselves to see the world through the eyes of our customers every step of the way.”

With skills like this being developed in our 6th graders , I don’t think the students will have any problems tackling the challenges they face in middle school next year. In fact, I venture to guess that these students will be redesigning the middle school experience in no time! And then high school. And soon, they’ll be solving problems we can’t yet fathom. Homework? Psh! No problem at all.


Book Read: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

The Antidote book jacketI have to admit, part of the reason I picked up this book at the library was to joke with my daughter. One of the things she will tell you about me is that I am anything but overly peppy or bubbly. It’s not that I am negative, or a “Debbie Downer.” I consider myself more of a realist who likes to look at all potential outcomes of a situation. So when I saw this book displayed on the bookshelf, I thought it’d be a great kick off to my 2018 reading list.

And it truly was. Burkeman, a journalist and author, sets out in this book to explore the negative path to happiness. Motivational seminars and self-help positive affirmation books can actually lead to less happiness. Through his research of various psychologists, philosophers, and religions “…it pointed to an alternative approach, a ‘negative path’ to happiness, that entailed taking a radically different stance towards those things that most of us spend our lives trying to avoid. It involved learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity, stopping trying to think positively, becoming familiar with failure, even learning to value death. In short, all these people seemed to agree that in order to be truly happy, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions—or, at the very least to learn to stop running quite so hard from them.”

You know, maybe I should just let this video explain it:

Some specific quotes that jumped out at me:

“The effort to feel happy is often precisely the thing that makes us miserable. And that it is our constant efforts to eliminate the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, or sadness – that is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy.”

“Confronting the worst-case scenario saps it of much of its anxiety-inducing power. Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle, negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”

“Reassurance can actually exacerbate anxiety: when you reassure your friend that the worst-case scenario he fears probably won’t occur, you inadvertently reinforce his belief that it would be catastrophic if it did. You are tightening the coil of his anxiety, not loosening it. All to often, the Stoics point out, things will not turn out for the best.”

“A person who has resolved to ‘think positive’ must constantly scan his or her mind for negative thoughts – there’s no other way that the mind could ever gauge its success at the operation – yet that scanning will draw attention to the presence of negative thoughts.”

“But sometimes you simply can’t make yourself feel like acting. And in those situations, motivational advice risks making things worse, by surreptitiously strengthening your belief that you need to feel motivated before you act. By encouraging an attachment to a particular emotional state, it actually inserts an additional hurdle between you and your goal. The subtext is that if you can’t make yourself feel excited and pleased about getting down to work, then you can’t get down to work.”

“Ceaseless optimism about the future only makes for a greater shock when things go wrong; by fighting to maintain only positive beliefs about the future, the positive thinker ends up being less prepared, and more acutely distressed, when things eventually happen that he can’t persuade himself to believe are good.”

What it means to me

IMG_8773.jpgI just keep thinking about the anxiety levels of my daughter leading in to her high school final exams. She was a miserable human being. I saw more tears in a 7 day span than I had probably seen the past year. And I wonder if it’s because our current society focuses so much on positive thinking and goals and “you can do it.” Her fear of not doing “it” was crippling her. Had she been exposed to negative thinking, she would have been able to see that the worst-case scenario (failing the test) would have resulted in maybe a B in a class. And truly, in the grander scheme of things, is that B worth the anxiety she put herself through? (She passed, by the way, and maintained her straight A record…)

Are we teaching students resilience? Are we teaching them how to cope with failure? Or are we just piling on the gold stars for everything they do? Embracing a growth mindset does not mean ceaseless optimism. It means wiping the dirt off our knees when we fall and looking for a plan B… or C.. or maybe even a Plan W.  But does it also mean asking students to consider what’s the worst that could happen if it doesn’t work out? Are we helping students to see that their life is NOW or are we always talking to them about “one day” and “in [next grade/school/etc] you’ll need to know this…” When we talk about goal setting, how do we frame it? “There’s a real benefit to finding ways to loosen our grip as goal driven people. When you look at successful entrepreneurs…you find they don’t follow this stereotype.” Instead, Burkeman says, we should remain ready to adapt where we are heading and embrace the uncertainty that scares us.

Maybe that should be added to my one word 2018… can I commit to uncertainty? What are your thoughts on this?

A full review of the book via The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman – review | Books | The Guardian

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Commit to read more books

booksAs you may have read, my one word for 2018 is COMMIT. One of my commitments is to read more. So it was only fitting that Daniel Pink would include an article about how to read more in his most recent Pink newsletter. (I sware he included it just for me!)

Five steps to read more books:

  1. Download books to your smartphone
    I downloaded the Libby app to my phone, which allows me to check out eBooks from my local library. Figure that it will be a nice way to add an extra book to my bedside stack and give me something to do during all those waiting times, such as at the doctor, the Costco gas line, or waiting for a meeting to start. I also downloaded Read This Next, which suggests books to read based on authors you like. I haven’t played with it yet, but it looks promising. And of course, I have Audible for my commute to/from work.
  2. Set a daily reading goal
    It’s hard for me to set a goal beyond just reading every day. I don’t like page or chapter counts, as I feel it stifles my brain. So for now, let’s just say the goal is to read every day.
  3. Read before bed every night
    ZZZZZ…. no, seriously, this is my reading time. Now I just need to do a better job of putting down the phone earlier so I can get more reading time in before the eyelids close on me.
  4. Keep a stack of tempting books on hand
    I don’t know any educators for which this is an issue. Part of my purpose for the reading goal this year was to get that stack a bit lower. I feel like I add five for every one I read! I do, however, want to add more fiction to the pile so that I have a plethora of choices.
  5. Read aloud
    I’m perplexed. I don’t know how this will increase my book reads. First of all, no one wants to hear me. And if I am reading at bedtime, I may have a pretty grumpy boyfriend in the morning! How about an under my breath muttering?

    Any other tips you’d add to the list?

via How to read more books — Quartz

The Sky is Blue. It’s Always Blue.

12767714195_c359fd6c1e_bToday I was binging through season 5 of Orange is the New Black in an attempt to complete the series (to date) before returning to work. In one of the episodes, Suzanne shares with her cellmates that the sky is always blue. She said, “It’s like the sky is blue, right? But when there are clouds, you think it’s gray. But, really, it’s still blue. It hasn’t changed. It’s just covered with gray clouds passing by. And your clouds will pass by.”


How many times have we been so consumed by the grayness of the clouds that we fail to remember the sky is still blue? The clouds can take many forms. At work, they may be state mandates, or meeting overload, or high stakes testing. At home, it manifests itself as a squealing dryer, a leaking toilet, or a (near) empty checking account. And I have to admit, sometimes my clouds manifest themselves in those dearest to my heart, when frustrations run high over short tempers or hurt feelings.

“It’s like the sky is blue, right?”

Sure state mandates can be tedious, and meetings get boring, and we all know that high stakes testing isn’t the best accountability measure, but I get to spend my days with passionate, dedicated teachers and administrators who are in an unrelenting pursuit of the amazing school experience for EVERY child. I get to help design experiences that ignite student genius, and empower them to pursue their own passions. How amazingly blue of a sky is that?!? And I get paid for it, too!

“But when there are clouds, you think it’s gray. But, really, it’s still blue. It hasn’t changed.”

I ordered a rear bearing kit from Amazon for my dryer, and with the power of YouTube, should have it back in action before the weekend is over. A toilet seal is only a few bucks at Home Depot, and at least I have a steady paycheck to replenish that checking account. These are just things, after all. Things can be fixed, replaced, or lived without.

“It’s just covered with gray clouds passing by. And your clouds will pass by.”

My family is my center. My daughters fill my heart with so much joy. My boyfriend makes me smile every time I see him. We all have our moments when we are not at our greatest, but through it all, we continue to love and support each other.

Epicurus, ancient stoic philosopher, said, “Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.”

Committing to enjoying the blue sky!

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Commit to the challenge.

The adventure.

The healthy lifestyle.

The quest for knowledge.

Reading to learn.

Reading to escape.

Learning new things…

Improving educational opportunities for our students.

Spending quality family time with my girls…

Quiet times with my boyfriend.

Alone time for reflection.


This is my #oneword2018. It encompasses all aspects of my life. My personal life, My professional life. My romantic life. And most importantly, my family life.

I look forward to sharing this year with everyone through my blog and tweets.

Happy 2018!

(Photo from Superstition desert during a recent off road adventure weekend)

Book Read: Grayson by Lynne Cox

Book cover of Grayson by Lynne CoxA few days ago, I publicly declared that I was reclaiming my love of reading in 2018, and to do that, I would be trying to read a book(ish) a week. The first step in this journey was dusting off my library card and making a trip to the stacks. Such fun to roam the aisles and pick up books I wouldn’t otherwise select!

For my first official book read, I chose Grayson by Lynne Cox. It’s a short memoir from Cox, an American long-distance open-water swimmer. The story centers on her experience swimming with a baby gray whale who had gotten separated from his mother. Cox’s bond with the whale while attempting to reconnect him with his mother is touching.

A few passages and my connections to them:

Sometimes it's the process of doing that makes things clear.

Sometimes the answers we find while searching are better or more creative than anything we could ever have imagined before.” When introducing new technology tools to teachers, there is often this desire to fully understand the tool before introducing it to students. But in doing so, we strip students of the opportunity to explore and create their own experience, their own learning.

In our district, we are at the beginning of a five year plan called District Design 2022. Our vision, the unrelenting pursuit of the extraordinary school experience, is so that we can ignite genius and empower students to advance the world. It can be hard to remember that this quest won’t happen tomorrow, or next month, or even next year. It’s a five year plan, and even that may be ambitious. And even though we have yearly objectives, and ideas of what students need to become empowered, it will require humility and a lot of introspection to find the answers within the struggles.

The struggle can be made even more complicated by the fact that not everyone understands why we are swimming against the tide. Our plan is ambitious, and it can be hard for some to justify the WHY for radical change when our district is already performing in the top 1% of the state on standardized testing.

Cox realizes that the only way to help the baby whale is to set aside her own needs, and think, and behave, like a whale. There are moments of doubt, especially when she finds herself a mile from shore in the cold Pacific waters with no mother whale in sight. At times, the baby dives deep in to the ocean, and remains unseen for 10-15 minutes at a time. It’s during these times, Cox surmises, that the baby is getting away from the surface level distractions to listen for the calls of the mother.

It’s in one of these moments that Cox reflects:

Wait as long as you need to. The waiting is as important as the doing: it’s the time you spend training and the rest in between; it’s the reading and the thinking about what you’ve read; it’s the written words, what is said, what is left unsaid, the space between the thoughts on the page, that makes the story, and it’s the space between the notes, the intervals between fast and slow, that makes the music. It’s the love of being together, the spacing, the tension of being apart, that brings you back together.

The waiting is as important as the doing…  So many times I have pushed ahead because I see the destination and I am eager to get there. I may not have given teachers time to move beyond the surface distractions and dive deep. But it’s these moments, this space between the thoughts, that builds capacity, builds commitment, moves the vision to reality.

Thanks Lynne Cox for writing this gem of a book. I look forward to the next book on my list.

Have one you want to add to my list? Please add it on my blog post titled “The Next Chapter”.