Designing a school for students by students

Integrating human-centered design into the New England Innovation Academy’s strategy, culture, and curriculum to foster an educational environment that creates highly purposeful, empathetic, innovative problem solvers who positively influence our world.

PIN Points

  • MIT’S INTEGRATED DESIGN MANAGEMENT (MITidm) researchers partnered with NEIA’s founding team to integrate human-centered design into the school’s DNA.

  • TEACHING INNOVATION WITH EMPATHY through human-centered design, NEIA prepares students to become the next generation of compassionate and purpose-driven innovators. Our students will leave NEIA prepared to lead through creative problem solving and make a positive impact in the world.

  • A SCHOOL THAT IS CO-CREATED, and designed for students with students, parents, teachers, and administrators. We aim to create solutions alongside our stakeholders to ensure that the NEIA experience meets the needs of students, proves desirable to parents, and remains feasible for teachers to implement.

  • STUDENTS SOLVE REAL WORLD PROBLEMS through NEIA’s human-centered design curriculum to explore their own interests, define their purpose, innovate creatively through hands-on projects, and tell their story to the world.

WHY human-centered design?

NEIA aims to develop highly motivated and empathetic innovators that work with a steadfast sense of purpose. To achieve this vision, the school embeds human-centered design into the fabric of its curriculum. Human-centered design is a creative problem-solving methodology that focuses on the needs of the people who will benefit from the designer’s solution. Built on a foundation of deep empathy, our curriculum produces innovators that create solutions that meet the needs of those they seek to serve, while positively impacting their lives in unique ways. Such a learning experience allows thoughtful, inventive problem solvers who gain the confidence they need to become meaningful leaders in our rapidly evolving world.

WHO were the members of the design team?

NEIA’s founding team partnered with MITidm to make this vision of human-centered design a reality at the school. MITidm, MIT’s Integrated Design & Management graduate program, is home to a group of ambitious human-centered designers with diverse work experience that bring new levels of creativity, imagination, and integrity to various sectors of society ranging from education to business. Under the leadership of Matt Kressy, the founder and director of MITidm, I embarked on this exciting project along with Cory Ventres-Pake and Dave Ludgin, two other human-centered design strategists, this summer.

HOW did we create the human-centered design curriculum?

Creating a human-centered design curriculum required us to invoke the human-centered design process itself. Since the success of a project is contingent upon the satisfaction of the stakeholders, we began by defining NEIA’s primary stakeholders: students, teachers, parents, and administrators. We aimed to create solutions that not only aligned with NEIA’s vision, but that would also meet the needs of students, prove desirable to parents, and remain feasible for teachers to implement.

The team applied MITidm’s human-centered design process.


First, we conducted interviews with NEIA administrators to understand their aspirations for the school. Our conversation around their vision and extensive experience in education pushed us to define the desired project outcome as creating a learning experience that:

  • increases student well-being
  • enables students to fully engage with learning materials
  • empowers students to approach and solve problems creatively
  • prepares students to thrive in an ever-evolving global community

With those four goals in mind — well-being, engagement, creative problem solving, and real-world preparation— we identified the best practices in the field by conducting extensive landscape research and conversing with leading experts in the field. This research revealed that these four elements naturally coexist to yield optimal results:

The relationship between the four desired design outcomes.

We talked with a diverse group of fifth through twelfth-grade students that included a range of races, ethnicities, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, and genders. We also sought out students with different school experiences, interviewing those displaying high academic achievement as well as those who required more support to reach educational benchmarks.

In addition, we interviewed six parents and six teachers to gain their input on both student needs and their own needs. These conversations made our design process as inclusive and equitable as possible.


During our conversations with the students, we discovered three primary student mindsets. We created three personas to characterize these thought patterns and underlying pain points: Riley, Tony, and Anne.

We also discovered that all of the students shared the following key needs:

Play: being physically active and having fun
Rest: having time and space for recess during the school day
Involvement: actively engaging in class through discussions, games, and hands-on projects
Autonomy: exercising agency over their school experience by having options to choose from
Understanding: being heard, respected, and trusted by their teachers
Belonging: building a community of support through shared experiences

We learned that parents want their children to discover and follow their passions and to be happy and healthy. They want to raise confident, ambitious children.Teachers, on the other hand, want autonomy along with opportunities for growth and upward movement. When it comes to teaching a new approach with confidence, they need to have a supportive environment and adequate time to learn and practice the approach themselves.

Co-creation & Experimentation

After gathering the research, we facilitated an online co-creation workshop with help from the MITidm team and NEIA management team along with teachers, students, and parents. We split the participants into three teams and ensured that each team had one member from each stakeholder group. The teams gathered in virtual breakout rooms to discuss the three student personas.

The team facilitated an online co-creation workshop with the participation of students, parents, teachers, and NEIA administrators.

The workshop participants generated ideas together to address student needs.Each team observed the following co-creation flow:

  • Team facilitators from MITidm presented the research findings related to the team’s persona and persona’s needs.
  • Teams reflected on and provided feedback on the research findings.
  • Each person individually generated ideas to address the needs discussed.
  • Everyone shared their ideas and collaborated with one another to refine them.
  • Teams prioritized the ideas based on the impact.

The full group reconvened and shared their prioritized ideas to receive feedback and consider each subgroup’s work.After the workshop, we shaped the ideas into concrete solution concepts. The concepts included (1) principles for NEIA that will guide the school to constantly work to identify and address the needs of students, parents, teachers and administrators (2) a unique human-centered design curriculum and teacher training plan to ensure a high degree of confidence (3) an integrated learning class that shows students the connection between their different school subjects and the real world, and (4) a 7-year ideal student experience map equipped with curricular and co-curricular elements.We worked very closely with the NEIA management team to learn from their expertise and create practical solutions. Then, we showed the solution concepts to students, parents, teachers, and education experts to make improvements with their feedback.

WHAT is the outcome?

NEIA’s human-centered design curriculum is unique because it is designed for students with students. It will not only teach students to solve problems creatively through hands-on projects, but it will also help them explore their own interests and passions, define their purpose, engage with the community to solve problems they care about, and tell their story to the world.Let’s look at the human-centered design (HCD) curriculum modules:

The high-level NEIA HCD curriculum.

Belonging: Belonging is connecting with yourself, the people around you, and the world in which you live. In this module, students are empowered to be their authentic selves, while encouraging others to do the same in a supportive environment.

HCD fundamentals: Students learn the mindsets and skills of HCD and execute individual and team projects to apply their knowledge. They learn to build empathy, innovate solutions with an open-mind and experimentation mindset, and collaborate with others to create positive results.

Purpose-building: Through the HCD process, students explore themselves — their strengths, interests, values and passions. They expand and test their passions through small projects that push them to further define their sense of purpose.

Passion Project: They complete a passion project to solve a meaningful problem using the HCD process. After completing the project, students iterate their purpose statement considering their new learnings and discoveries.

Community Project: Students work with a community partner of their choice to solve a community problem related to their purpose. They create a tangible impact in the community and gain real-world work experience.

Storytelling: Students build a portfolio and learn to tell the story of what makes them unique while drawing inspiration from the impact they have created throughout their NEIA experience.

NEIA’s HCD curriculum is designed to close any and all gaps that prevent students from acquiring the 21st-century skills they need to become the transformational leaders of our future. Through problem solving, teamwork, open communication, professionalism, and leadership development, this curriculum prepares students to thrive as our next generation of empathetic innovators capable of tackling our world’s most complex problems.

Reference: Griffin, Abbie and John R. Hauser. “The Voice of the Customer”, Marketing Science. vol. 12, no. 1, Winter 1993.


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After our first full week into summer, we want to look back on a year-long project that yielded impressive results for three of our amazing rising 12th graders.

This past fall, NEIA 11th graders pitched products that could add value to people’s lives by curing diseases or ailments. This is part of the BioTrek Program: a joint initiative by ARMI (Advanced Regenerative Medical Institute) and BioFabUSA. Students pitched their amazing ideas to Tim McCauley, their peers, and a panel of judges made up of NEIA staff members. 

Throughout these presentations, our students walked through all phases of the Biotrek journey. First, identifying a problem. Second, engineering a solution using bio-manufacturing techniques. In the third phase, they developed a business and financial model for their product. The final phase was this event: pitching to their peers and judges. They are trying to solve real medical issues, such as endometriosis, chronic lung disease, color blindness, and osteogenesis (just to name a few). 

The winners moved on to the Final Presentations judged by representatives from ARMI and Biofab, which decided
who would represent NEIA against other schools in the Biotrek Championship. The winning group chosen to go to the championship was Endopexy, created by Milena, Lila, and Max H.

Milena, Lila, and Max’s hard worked paid off as they were the winning team of the championships. We are so proud of these three innovators for working hard the whole year and being recognized in such a highly competitive program.

This project-based learning program continues to be a very valuable experience for our innovators. You can clearly see the intersection of subjects like science, math, entrepreneurship, and communications. It is the perfect example of how integrated academics lead to exciting projects and connections.

#NEIA #BioTrek #Innovation #entrepreneur #entrepreneurship #integration

This weekend, three of our 11th grade students: Vicki, Owen, and Langston, won first place at the Entrepreneurship for All - EforAll All Ideas Pitch Competition for their idea around the NEXTGEN Summit, a conference that Langston initiated this spring at NEIA.

Owen explains the idea to execution as follows, "My mother is an alum of the Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) Business Accelerator Program. One night while scrolling Instagram, she found a post by EforAll about an All Ideas Pitch Competition happening. She sent me the post at 11:20 p.m. and we were signed up for the event by 12:15 a.m. A few weeks later we were selected to table at the event with the potential of being able to participate in the final pitch competition. We landed a spot in the pitch competition, and it was a huge success as we not only won the first place prize of $1000, but also won the Fan Favorite prize for an additional $500. We were by far the youngest attendees at the event and were pitching with people who were already well removed from college."

We are so proud of our innovators and commend them for their efforts to not only seek new opportunities each and every day but to thrive within them.

#NEIA #PitchCompetition #EForAll #NEXTGENSummit #NEXTGEN #FutureOfEducation #Innovation #Entrepreneurship

That’s a wrap! We will see you soon, innovators. We miss you already.

#LastDayOfSchool #Summer #NEIA #innovators #summerbreak


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