Oregon Breaker 2019 Summer Challenge

The Future of Health and Wellness 

How Might We: Reduce the Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes




Written by Rivu Dasgupta

An unfinished retail space on Portland’s Central-East side proved to be something a bit more special this past week: a student-driven classroom and curiosity hub for Construct’s 6th annual Project Breaker Student Design Challenge, a 2-week program that charges 14 High Schoolers to develop real solutions to high level problems. Looking around the room, with its exposed stone floors and crane-facing windows, one gets the feeling there’s work to be done – and this past week, the ‘Breakers’ have been hard at work. 

Design and its tenets are not commonly taught in American high schools, which makes the first day of ‘Breaker’ especially interesting from an education programmer’s perspective. It’s easy to wonder what motivates so many eager young people to participate in a Design Challenge, and having worked with some of our students before in a more traditional school setting, I asked them that very question. Ramon, a rising Senior at David Douglas High School, said whilst fighting a yawn “I’m not really sure, but I think I’m excited!” Oscar Nguyen, another rising Senior from Parkrose High School, said nearly the same thing while fiddling with a Rubik’s cube in his hand, sparing it the occasional glance in our conversation as he moved toward a personal record; “I’m interested in Design but I don’t really know what it is.”

This year’s program consists of students from David Douglas, Parkrose, Centennial, and Reynolds High Schools. Their challenge is The Future of Health and Wellness: How do we reduce Type 2 Diabetes in our community and beyond?

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 12.46.23 PM.png

Students were first introduced to the 5-step Design philosophy with a “Rapid Design Cycle,” where they engage a sample problem (in this case: how do we fix school seating?), conduct empathy interviews, and develop a tangible prototype, all in less than  an hour. Ramon, embodying the energy of a post-finals summer morning, made a gauntlet ‘wearable’ with rubber-band fixtures to encourage the user to stay awake. Mia, a rising Senior at Centennial High School, designed a miniature throne fashioned from pipe-cleaners, torn HEPA filters, and silver glitter construction paper to serve as Air Conditioning, for good measure.  

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 12.46.30 PM.png

The first step of the design-process is ‘Empathy.’ Students were quick to offer an ear when Kathy Schwab from Providence Health gave a high-level overview of Type 2 Diabetes and what exists – and doesn’t exist -- in the healthcare landscape to inform, support, and reduce incidence rates. Breakers learned that we’re approaching a near global epidemic (1 in 3 Americans have Pre-Diabetes!), and were similarly informed of both benefits and barriers when considering tech / Application-based software as part of their solutions. 

Kathy is one of many “Thought Leaders” fundamental to the “Empathy” and “Define” steps of Design -- persons who are content experts across a wide variety of disciplines who have received both successes and challenges in their work as entrepreneurs, scientists, and social engineers. Another Thought Leader, Sada Naegelin of De Las Mías, co-founded a company delivering the specific health needs of Latina women via an increasingly well-received Mobile App. Breakers were able to take notice of Sada’s product both as an example of a specific user profile with particular needs, and also as an example of the demand for culturally responsive and literate solutions to modern problems. This year’s Breakers will be the first to tell you that the existing healthcare marketplace predominantly serves older, white Americans, a disconnect from the fact that communities of color and young people are increasingly, if not predominantly, at risk for Type 2 Diabetes. 

Other thought leaders included Tara Timothy from Providence Base Camp, a free community wellness resource centering themselves in preventative care; Amy Van Denburgh of the Oregon Food Bank, who is forwarding the shift from a “charity model” of food banking to an “education model” (how do we teach people to cook and shop better?); and Jessamyn Sajko, a Naturopath and Holistic Nutritionist who was able to provide immersive client profiles. Not to limit themselves to Q&A’s, Breakers also practiced “immersive empathy” when exercising together at data-centric Orange Theory, and also while touring ‘Basics,’ a hyper-local and community driven grocery store offering free cooking and nutrition classes to the public. 

Wrapping up the ‘Empathy’ and ‘Define’ stages of the Design Challenge were several intercept interviews, where initially nervous Breakers set out to ask the broader Portland public about their own experiences with health, wellness, and Diabetes, in the hopes of learning more about their future users. Their preliminary anxiousness gradually turned into something else, though; namely, excitement at the prospect of designing something for persons both similar and dissimilar to the ones our students were talking to. 

Screen Shot 2019-06-28 at 12.46.39 PM.png

 Over the course of the week, the would-be retail space serving as Breaker’s home base transformed into something quite special. A student-built causal map for Type 2 Diabetes covers the entirety of a west-facing window. Interview debriefs and synthesis work fill a wall towards the end of the storefront, under the copy ‘For People and Planet’ bespoke in large type, a vestige of a previous or future business. Jars filled with a random assortment of jellybeans are half-emptied on every desk, next to piles of used post-it’s and uncapped Sharpies, pens, and open Moleskins. More transformed, perhaps, are some of the students. I’ve personally worked with some of them for nearly a year as their College Possible Coach, having taught a wide albeit inflexible variety of material (think ACT and other standardized test prep), and I’ve seen curiosity wane and die as an otherwise eager group of young people are taught to “play the game” of higher education. Nearly all of the students in Breaker are College Possible students, and it’s personally revealing what a student-driven education looks like for them; they’re excited to ask questions, they approach difficult situations (like interviewing strangers off the street) with purpose, and they’ve gone out of their way to collaborate with one another on projects. Perhaps Ramon has the words to wrap up Week 1 the best: “When do we get to make something?!” On to Week 2!  

Join Us For : Pitch Day Celebration