Available On:

  • Listen on Apple Podcasts
  • Get it on Google Play
  • Listen on Stitcher
  • Listen on TuneIn
  • Listen on Spotify

No Barriers Podcast Episode 77: Designing Thinking with Lisa Yokana

For our final installment of our Education Series, Dave and Erik speak with Lisa Yokana. Lisa is the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) coordinator at Scarsdale High School and oversees an innovative program that focuses on “Design Thinking.” Listen to hear more about her hands-on approach that encourages students to approach real-world problems with a No Barriers mindset. 


An educator for over twenty years, Lisa Yokana is the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) coordinator at Scarsdale High School, where she designed and teaches a three-level STEAM course sequence for Scarsdale’s Design Lab.

In 2019, the program won the gold medal in the STEAMEX international contest for innovative curriculum design. Lisa works with teachers across the disciplines to integrate Design Thinking and Making into their curriculum.

She was a Coach for IDEO’s Teachers Guild, is an author of curriculum for outside organizations including the U.S. History Advanced Placement course, and co-instructs Project Zero/Harvard Graduate School of Education’s online class: Thinking and Learning in the Maker Centered Classroom. She leads Innovation Education, Design Thinking and Maker workshops and presents at conferences, encouraging educators to shift their practice.

Lisa earned her BA in Studio Art and French Literature from Williams College, where she was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and her Master’s Degree in Art History from Columbia University. She also has a degree in building and district level administration from Stony Brook University.


Follow Lisa on Twitter:

Check out her Blog: https://innovated2x.blogspot.com/

How I Built This Podcast

The No Barriers Global Impact Challenge Winners: Scarsdale High School

No Barriers Education Resources





“Yeah, you’re creating kids who want to learn and actually understand that there’s a process for them to learn. Everybody has their own process. You’re creating lifelong learners and kids will have agency. I mean, if we could do that as teachers, we hit a home run.”



Write a Review

Download the Episode

View Full Episode List

Episode Transcript

Lisa : Yeah, you're creating kids who want to learn and actually understand that there's a process for them to learn. Everybody has their own process. You're creating lifelong learners and kids will have agency. I mean, if we could do that as teachers, we hit a home run.

Erik : It's easy to talk about the successes, but what doesn't get talked about enough is the struggle. My name is

Erik :. I've gotten the chance to ascend Mount Everest, to climb the tallest mountain in every continent, to kayak the Grand Canyon. And I happen to be blind. It's been a struggle to live what I call a no barriers life.

Erik : To define it, to push the parameters of what it means. Part of the equation is diving into the learning process and trying to illuminate the universal elements that exist along the way and that unexplored terrain between those dark places we find ourselves in, in a summit exists a map. That map, that way forward is what we call no barriers.

Dave : Today we learn to innovate with

Lisa :, who teaches the Harvard Graduate School of Education's online class Thinking and Learning in the Maker-Centered Classroom. She leads workshops and presents at conferences that encourage educators to shift their practice and integrate design thinking, and making into their curriculum. Lisa is also the STEAM coordinator at Scarsdale High School in New York City. Enjoy the conversation.

Dave : Well, welcome everybody to this week's episode of the No Barriers podcast. As you all have heard in the month of September, we've been focusing on stories that tie to education and our youth and the struggles that we're all facing in light of how to learn and grow in today's COVID times. Today we have another guest we're excited to focus in on that theme.

Lisa : is joining us. Welcome, Lisa, to the show.

Lisa : Thank you. I'm thrilled to be here.

Dave : And Eric, welcome back. Another good conversation.

Erik : Thank you. Yeah. Lisa, awesome. Thank you for being with us. You have your hands in a lot. It seems like this design thinking, I mean, there's so much collaboration and interdisciplinary study. So what does your day look like?

Lisa : My regular day or my day these days?

Erik : Let's say your day, these days. Yeah. What are you teaching this year, starting out the year?

Lisa : I teach entrepreneurship. So we have a social entrepreneurship course, which is pretty much our capstone course for our STEAM. We say STEAM, not STEM.

Erik : You got art in there.

Lisa : Yes. Well, art and design. You've got to think like a designer. You've got to think creatively. Got to think outside the box. Otherwise, you're not making anything new.

Erik : [inaudible 00:03:09] They were really sad when STEM happened. They're like, wait, what about the A?

Lisa : Well, yes. I just don't even talk to the STEM people because that's not really a thing. They're all really doing STEAM. They just don't know it.

Dave : For our listeners who have no idea what the heck we're talking about right now, what's STEAM, STEM? What are we talking about?

Lisa : So the steam is science, technology, engineering, art, and math. Literally our board of ed came to us probably seven or eight, maybe seven or eight years ago and said, "We want you to teach the kids engineering." I said, "Not so fast."

Lisa : So we took a bunch of time and crafted this three level program, which basically introduces kids to the concept of design and engineering and making, and really focuses on designing for others. We really focus on helping kids understand that they can make a difference in the world. So our three levels of courses teach kids the design process, and then they scaffold the experience.

Erik : So like in a nutshell, tell us how the process begins and how you take kids through it.

Lisa : The design process is big and messy and problems are big and messy. The problems that are worth solving in the world are big, messy, sticky problems. I was saying to my new class of entrepreneurship this morning, I said, "If we said to you go out and solve global warming, what would happen?" They all were like, uh. I said, "Exactly, you'd be paralyzed. That's way too big. You can't solve that problem. Not now. But if you start to look at it locally and start to think about ... "

Lisa : So we do a lot of systems thinking, we start to break apart systems. So one thing that I felt is really important as we crafted the program too, was that we wanted to constrain the problems. We knew that finding a problem, a good problem would be difficult for kids, but it's also the really good, hard work too. The kids have talked about how that's the most meaningful part of the process for them. That it's an amazing learning experience to drill down and figure out what a good problem is. It's also one way to limit the problems.

Erik : I love that. That sounds so interesting because as you're saying, part of the process is picking the right problems. So if you pick a bad or unsolvable or too conceptual of a problem, you're already messed up.

Dave : Yeah. It's so true. You get stifled by a problem that's so large that like, where would I even start? Part of what you're trying to do is teach kids a process they can use no matter what problems they choose in the future. So eliminating that challenge of picking the problem that they care the most about is a good first step. But even within the space of refocused on disability, there's lots of problems there.

Erik : So Lisa, I know obviously one of your projects, which was a designing adaptive clothing for kids with disabilities. Tell us about some of the highlights. I know you've done more than that and tell us about that project as well.

Lisa : Yeah. So that's a great project. The students designed for children who have to be dressed horizontally because they realized that when they visited, this was the first year. So when we visited the home for kids.

Erik : Was that the Sunshine Home? Is that what it's called?

Lisa : The Sunshine Home, New York. Yep. They realized that the kids were often wearing old t-shirts and they were clean and very comfortably dressed. But sometimes the t-shirts weren't really age appropriate. An older child would have like a Barney t-shirt on or something that wasn't quite a teenage kind of thing. They were really focusing on the idea of dignity. That dignity is something that they wanted everyone to have access to. So they also cared a lot about clothes. They talked a lot about how they express themselves through their clothing. They wanted kids, older kids who cannot dress themselves to have those choices.

Lisa : So they designed a shirt that opened like a book that had snap tape under the arms and Velcro down the sides. So a child could be laid on it and then the shirt could simply be closed around them. But they also, they added a bunch of cool features. So they had a t-shirt like pocket in the front that actually would hide a feeding tube because they wanted kids to feel dignified if that's what they used.

Lisa : Then in the back, it had two pieces of conductive fabric that married to a pad on the wheelchair and completed a circuit when the child was sitting the way a therapist or their caregiver had placed them. But if they slipped out of position, the circuit would be broken and it would alert the care giver through a light or a buzzer because they thought a lot about how uncomfortable it must be to sit in one position if you can't control your movement. So that's been one very, very successful project.

Erik : I heard you guys were taking these old toys and converting them into more adaptive toys for folks with disabilities too.

Lisa : Yeah. That's kind of how we got into a little bit into this space is that ... so I have a niece who has cerebral palsy and is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair. Her mom, my sister-in-law, works with Adaptive Design Association in New York City. And they actually create cardboard adaptations of furniture for children with disabilities. They've made my niece, I think, eight or nine different things.

Lisa : So I kind of got involved with Adaptive Design Association. I sent some students there for an internship and it really was mind blowing for them. Then I was on their website and I realized that they did toy hacking. They taught workshops. So one Saturday morning, I and a couple of students headed down to New York City.

Lisa : They were the only kids in the room. The other people in the room were occupational therapists or physical therapists. But they learned, I didn't learn, they learned how to hack toys. We ended up hacking a bunch of toys before the holidays and giving them to a local home for kids. It was great. The kids were so blown away by that.

Erik : I bet the interaction at the end of giving that away is really joyful too. Just the perfect icing on the cake.

Lisa : Absolutely. Well, I mean, that's why you do it. To see my kids' faces, the other kids' faces, and the interaction between the two and one of them just grabbed this bubble making machine and clutched it to her chest and was not letting go. Our kids just thought that was great.

Dave : It strikes me that the work that you do with students as a teacher, wouldn't it be great if we could all have a teacher like you in our lives, coaching us through choosing the problems that are right problems, and then how to go about tackling them. I think in today's day and age, many of us feel the desire to make a difference and to help some way.

Dave : If I'm someone listening and thinking, I want to help and make a difference and change the world. And gosh, there's so much need in light of COVID and we're just seeing so much need in the world today. You're my teacher, I'm an adult actually, how do I start? I want to help, but I don't know where to go. What's your advice, Lisa, for how to just get started?

Lisa : The biggest thing is to do something especially teachers, we talk a lot. Adults particularly talk a lot. I think there's so many great free resources out there. I mean, and No Barriers has some great stuff of things that you can do in your classroom. I think really just try something. There's a lot of information on the design process. People can reach out to me. I'm happy to point them in good directions.

Dave : So step one is, try something. Don't get [inaudible 00:11:08] gosh, I don't know where to start, so I'm not going to do anything.

Lisa : Yeah. It's an iteration. You learn from failure. I always, every single year at the start of the year, I say to my kids, you are my guinea pigs for the year. We're going to do a bunch of stuff. Some of it's going to work. Some of it's going to be massively failures, and that's just the way it is, but we'll learn from it. I'll learn from it. You'll learn from it.

Lisa : You'll give me feedback. I'll give you feedback and we're all going to learn because that's what life's about. You learn from being uncomfortable. And sometimes we all just need to sit in that place of being uncomfortable. That's what we learn from. The whole idea really is for kids to learn by doing, not just talking about it. We really, really stressed, like bias towards action. We want you to do.

Erik : Lisa, how has the design process changed now that we're in COVID times and you're having to do things more virtually in the structure and the spacing around the classroom has totally changed? Are you still allowed to use the equipment, the 3-D printers, all the hands-on incredible toys that used to be available to you?

Lisa : So we spent the summer re-imagining things and we have a protocol for the lab, but we do have a way for kids to use machinery and tools. We have different ends of the lab that have woodworking at one end and 3-D printers and other digital fabrication at the other end. Those rooms each have capacities. One has three, one has six. So we will be able to have students in those rooms.

Lisa : They're great. My students are great. So, we just make sure that when they're in those rooms, they're just aware of one another and they'll be good about it. I think the more difficult thing has been to think about working in a remote teaching environment and an in-person teaching environment. We learned a lot last spring.

Lisa : My district was one of the first to go home. I think we went home March 9th because we're right close to New Rochelle. We spent a lot of time March, April, May, June teaching virtually. I learned when you look at all those little squares, your little students on Zoom, that there is nothing worse than talking at kids in that virtual environment. I just realized, I'm on a webinar. I have 10 minutes in, I'm done. I can't.

Lisa : So what we really thought about is, and I think it's going to inform our teaching going forward, any content delivery we have to do is going to be via videos that they watch on their own time. So I make Screencastify's and whatever tool you use. I literally take the slide decks that we used to do in person and I just do voiceovers and they watch them. Then at the end I say, what questions do you have? Come to class with them.

Lisa : Then we'll start the class either in person or remotely with, okay, you guys watch that, what questions do you have? Great. Breakout rooms or turn and talk in your groups. Then they really spend the majority of the class time, whether it's remote or in person working in groups. I think that is going to carry over to post COVID times, which I think is a good thing.

Erik : Because it seems like there's an efficiency there of not wasting time. Doing the stuff, all the foundational stuff ahead of time, which you can do maybe hands-off and then diving right into the hands-on experience.

Lisa : Yeah, and doing the collaboration when you're together. Yeah, one of my colleagues, one of my teachers who also teaches some math courses, and she said to me, it's probably like, I don't know, the end of March. She said, "I've started making videos and the kids tell me, it's great because I'm doing a problem and they can stop it and they can go back if they're confused and they can play it over and over again, if they need to. And then they come to class with questions." I was like, that's brilliant. I'm going to do that too.

Dave : How do you manage the get your hands dirty, create stuff when you're not together, how do you do that?

Lisa : So a lot of what we do and when we went home in March, all of our entrepreneurship teams, I think we had 12 teams last year. All of them were about to finish their final prototype. We got the call Sunday night and no one went in on Monday and we didn't go in until this September. All of their prototypes were still sitting there.

Lisa : So we said, okay, we know you don't have your prototypes. You have to make a very low resolution way of getting your idea across to someone. You're going to make a video, and you can make an animation. You can use stick figures and a flip book. It doesn't matter. Very low resolution way of getting your idea across to someone of what your prototype is. Then you are going to cold email and cold call at least 10 people and get feedback.

Lisa : It was amazing. People were so kind to my kids and what a skill that is to reach out to someone and say, to draft an email and say, "Hi, my name is, and I am a senior at Scarsdale High School. And I've been working on this thing all year." And to have to succinctly describe what you're doing. "Do you have five minutes to watch this video? Could we jump on a call to talk about it?"

Lisa : Because we always get feedback from the kids at the end of the year. What was good? What didn't work? What did you like? They all said what an incredible skill that was, how uncomfortable it was for them to do that at first. They were dying. But they all said, "I'm so confident now that I can call anyone or email anyone and ask them for something." I said, that's a great skill for life, but it's also a great entrepreneurial skill.

Erik : Yeah. Marketing. It's almost like you got to add another M into the STEAM.

Dave : I think it's so common to get locked in your own head, oh, this idea is great and I'm going to just go design the whole thing and finish it all and put it out in the world. That's going to be this beautiful thing that everyone wants. That stage of the process of no, no, no, wait, wait, wait, just design a pretty simple thing and then put it in front of other people and get their feedback. That's going to enhance your product so much.

Lisa : We use a lot of the lean startup methodology and it's literally prototype test pivot or persevere. So yeah. We do it early, early on because we know there are so many stories of companies spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a product, getting it out into the market and it totally flops. When they should have just actually asked their users if it was something they were interested in or not.

Lisa : So we make our kids prototype, I say quick and dirty, really, really quickly that we'll give them maybe 15 minutes to prototype something. When they're home, it's like, well, you've got cardboard because you've been getting Amazon packages. You got a steak knife. You can cut that package up and use it and probably you have some glue, so figure it out. Maybe you have some pipe cleaners in the basement, who knows? So kids were able to make, when they were home, there's also so many great online tools, they can do animations.

Erik : A question just occurred to me, so you're talking about this iterative process which is like, really keep your ears open. But what do you say to, you always hear about these folklore stories about Steve Jobs or something, they're designing something the world didn't even know they needed it until he pushed it into the world and said, "You need this." So how do you balance between that process of listening and iterating what people need and this legend of the visionary who builds something the world latches onto it?

Lisa : Well, I think, I mean, it's a great point. There's very few Steve Jobs in the world. But I think entrepreneurs really have to have that balance of humility. They have to be humble. They have to be open to feedback. It's something we talk to kids all the time about. When you are getting feedback, you do not defend your product. You're not allowed. You sit, you take notes, you can ask questions of the person giving you feedback, but you may not defend.

Erik : It sounds like marriage. Wow, amazing. There's a lot of parallels here.

Lisa : Preparing you for life. Yeah. So we really teach them to listen, but we also, we make them listen. There's a great podcast, How I Built This, which is entrepreneurs being interviewed. So many of them talk about how someone told them their idea was terrible and they just kept persevering. They kept going.

Lisa : I have a friend who used to teach at Stanford in the design school. He was a TA at the time. The students had to do a project and this guy came to him and said, "So I have this great idea for an app. Kids will post pictures and their friends will see it. It won't stay up very long, but they'll just have this picture up that they can share with their friends for a little while."

Lisa : My friend said, "That's a terrible idea. Don't do that. It's awful. But you can ask the professor." And he went and asked the professor. Professor said, "Stupidest idea I've ever heard, but go ahead, make it, go ahead." Snapchat, who are not the holders of knowledge. I always say to my kids, I have no idea if it's a good idea. Prototype it, test it, get out there, talk to your users. So very important to do.

Dave : Lisa, I want to get back to this idea that you were talking about the schools, you've said very honestly that you're from a school that has the flexibility to do this kind of teaching that has a whole lab, that kids can go do it. What about the teachers listening here that say, oh, I have, if I'm lucky, 10 minutes a day where I'm allowed to be creative outside of what I'm told I have to teach. What's your advice for folks who are in that kind of situation that seems very different?

Lisa : I would say, hack the curriculum. Look at what you have to teach because so many of these schools are mandated to teach X, Y, and Z. You can teach this way across disciplines. So look at what you have to teach and then figure out a way for the kids to learn it by doing something. So I've done a ton of interdisciplinary projects with other teachers, did this great project with a very gifted social studies teacher.

Lisa : She wanted the kids to understand the complexity of World War II. She said like, "Every time I've taught it, it's fallen flat. There's too many things. It's just like, it's overwhelming for kids." So we ended up creating a project where the kids had to make a memorial, like a model of a memorial. They worked in groups and she gave them each a different area.

Lisa : So like Australia, by the way, I never knew that Australia was in World War II, but apparently they were. How would the people in Australia want to remember World War II and the people that were lost? They ended up making these great models. They think about what does architecture and structures, how do they create meaning? How does actually physically walking through a space make you feel? Now, how can we create spaces if we want to identify emotions that people want to feel, now how do we create spaces that will do that?

Lisa : In the meantime, by the way, they've learned all the content because they have to understand like, oh wow. Australia was in World War II. Well, who was fighting? Whose side were they on? All of a sudden they have to learn it, but they're also very motivated to learn that content. So I would say figure out what it is you want the kids to learn and then work backwards and figure out a way for them to make something that embodies that.

Erik : That's so cool. I am thinking it's backwards. I mean, it's backwards to what is traditionally done. Yeah. I'm watching this cheesy Netflix show and they keep talking about flipping the switch or flipping the script and I'm like, that's what you're kind of doing. You're flipping the script and empowering kids to learn the same stuff even more but through a better process, a power.

Lisa : Yeah. You're creating kids who want to learn and actually understand that there's a process for them to learn. Everybody has their own process. You're creating lifelong learners and kids will have agency. I mean, if we could do that as teachers we'd hit a home run. The world would be a better place.

Dave : Lisa, I'm curious, we've talked a lot about what you teach and how you teach, and how it's pivoted. We haven't talked much about how you got into this. Tell us, how did you end up being the social entrepreneur teacher of design thinking?

Lisa : I've had so many careers, it's crazy. Yeah. I used to ride horses professionally. I was an artist. I've worked in museums, done curatorial work. I mean, I don't know. I just keep reinventing myself. So I was teaching studio art and architecture, and I saw kids in my classroom, particularly in architecture. I would have a classroom of like 18 boys and two girls.

Lisa : I would see kids who were brilliant spatially and very, very creative and yet failed miserably at school, just miserably. They got no credit for being brilliant in these other ways. So we don't give anyone credit for that unless you grow up and be an architect. I just thought, there's something really wrong. Why aren't we valuing these kids? I could also see when they would do something and they would get kudos from their classmates, you could watch their self-esteem just grow right in front of your eyes.

Lisa : It was so incredible. I just wanted to do more of that. So I just started hacking my curriculum and my architecture classes would take on real design projects and we would redesign our library or we redesigned the youth room in the local public library. Then the kids presented to the real architects and we designed the elementary school classrooms for different classes.

Lisa : Watching my kids, first of all, get so passionate about doing something real and then so excited when they could see someone actually heard them, they could make a change. It's just like, why aren't we doing this? Why aren't we educating that way? So, when our board of ed said, teach the kids engineering, it just became an opportunity. We have very progressive parents and very savvy parents.

Lisa : So, you say like, we want to teach your kids skills so that they will be better prepared for life. We want them to think like entrepreneurs, our parents went, "Okay. That sounds good."

Erik : Sounds great.

Lisa : Which, I mean, I'm sure it's much harder in a school where kids, they don't have food and some of them are homeless and they're having a hard time, even just with the basics. So I'm incredibly fortunate, but I still think there's a way to reinvent education so that kids really are passionate about making and doing things and making change in the world.

Erik : That's beautiful.

Dave : Lisa, thank you so much for all that you're doing with students today and what you've taught our listeners here, and for being a member of our No Barriers community. It's a joy to have you here.

Lisa : Thank you. It's been wonderful to hang out with you guys.

Erik : Can I join your class? Like just sit there. They're like, "Who's this older student that's joined us today?" Seems like his forehead is quite large for a 17-year-old.

Lisa : You are more than welcome anytime. You just let me know. I'll send you a Zoom link. Always welcome.

Erik : All right. Thanks, Lisa.

Dave : So Eric, what stood out for you in today's conversation?

Erik : I mean, this is just, I'm blown away because so many good thoughts are going through my head. Like in No Barriers, for instance, we talk about No Barriers as this map, as this process. It's not design thinking, but it definitely has a lot of crossover to this idea of design thinking. I was thinking, as I was listening to Lisa, we teach kids, this is just me personally. Hope people don't attack me for this idea, but you have kids learning how to debate, and that's like taking a topic and proving that you're right.

Erik : Those kids will make great politicians, but they're not solving problems necessarily. They're taking an issue and trying to prove their right. Maybe that makes good lawyers and good politicians. But I feel like this kind of thinking, this design thinking, this mindset of collaboration, of going through a vulnerable process, having to figure out how to bring something new into the world, it's a total paradigm shift and game-changer to how our brains think and how we approach life and then really solve the problems of the future. So to me, this is the key equation to the educational system.

Dave : Well, I thank you listeners for joining us. If you're curious about any of the things that were specifically mentioned today, whether it's details about the school or some of the projects you've heard about or design thinking itself, you can always check our show notes. If you have enjoyed this conversation, we encourage you to share it with someone else.

Dave : If you're interested in the topic of how schools are addressing the challenging time of today, there are several other podcasts that you can check out. So check out our podcast history, and there's some other great conversations we've had. For now, hope you enjoyed the conversation and take good care.

Erik : Yeah. I mean, it's really incredible. We've had this educational series, we've had three amazing educators and so congrats to all teachers out there who are working and iterating and struggling right now. I hope you have learned from some of these conversations. Really just applause to all the teachers out there who are making it work for our students. So thank you.

Dave : Yeah. Thank you so much.

Erik : No Barriers.

Dave : The production team behind this podcast includes senior producer, Pauline Schaffer. Executive producer, Diedrich Jonk. Sound design, editing, and mixing by Tyler Cottman.

Dave : Thanks to all of you for listening. We know that you've got a lot of choices about how you can spend your time, and we appreciate you spending it with us. If you enjoy this podcast, we encourage you to subscribe to it, share it, and give us a review. Show notes can be found at NoBarriersPodcast.com.

No Barriers

No Barriers

Get Involved. Be Forever Changed.

Stay up-to-date on new opportunities & community stories.