First, a little background: We’re three undergrad industrial design students at the University of Cincinnati who teamed up for an experiment in education. We set out to partner with our university, a high school, and several footwear companies to create a curriculum that would engage and empower inner-city youth through footwear design. We titled the experiment the Tread Project.
The pitch was simple: Tread wanted to create an engaging curriculum that would channel these urban students’ passion for (and sometimes obsession with) footwear into their high school education. The result was a program aimed at giving these kids an intro to design thinking, creative problem solving, and the footwear-design process in seven weeks. Along the way, we discovered a few things that could help other grassroots projects get off the ground. We’ll get to those tips in a little bit.
Once the Tread Project idea was born, we pitched it to several global footwear brands. Before long, some of the biggest players in the biz (Reebok, Adidas, Nike, Vans, VitaminTHICK, and Toms Shoes) agreed to partner with us on our mission to inspire, engage, and empower 25 10th-graders at Hughes STEM High School in inner-city Cincinnati. Hughes High School educates more than 1,000 students, 85% of whom are below the poverty line. The school had recently introduced a STEM program in order to reinvigorate students through project-based learning, which paved the way for the Tread Project.[The students took part in a build-your-own-shoe exercise with masking tape. Here they are examining the final models and understanding the anatomy of the shoe.]
What started off as our senior thesis turned out to be an exhilarating lesson in the power of grassroots collaboration between the public and private sector. While we took care of most of the in-class activities, top-level executives and designers from the footwear companies came in once a week to speak to not only to the students in our class but the entire student body (up to 500 students at a time!). There were 10 speakers in total; designers and creative directors from Vans, Nike, Adidas, VitaminTHICK, Reebok, and Toms Shoes. The speakers, all of whom have incredible stories themselves, shared with the students the nuggets of wisdom that they had learned about drive, motivation, and achieving one’s dreams. For a disadvantaged teen living in a deteriorating neighborhood, these messages had special resonance.
What’s the Point?
One of Tread Project’s biggest takeaways was the sheer power that a seemingly niche skill like footwear design could hold. The point was not to create the next generation of designers but give students a crash course on how they can take their passions and leverage the design process to help determine their futures, whatever they may be.
The teachers at Hughes STEM High saw firsthand how powerful it was for the students to not only learn a new skill but also be encouraged by their fellow classmates to share their newfound design knowledge. Our students told us that they felt proud learning "hard" skills such as Photoshop/Illustrator rendering, conceptual sketching, and prototyping, along with "soft" skills like confidence, determination, and resilience — all of which could be applied toward their challenging everyday lives.
The First Step: Finding Your Niche
The Tread Project team didn’t come up with the idea of teaching footwear design out of thin air. It was a natural evolution and a combination of our backgrounds: Charley’s passion for footwear and new models of altruism, Vanessa’s experience in psychology and design management, and Jince’s fascination with leveraging culture to create social impact. The three different personalities came together and found a common ground in footwear design.
The beauty of this process is that you, too, can utilize your disparate skills toward an extraordinary initiative.
How to Start Your Own Revolution
1.) Gather an A-team of dedicated people and choose a demographic/location/school.
2.) Brainstorm with your team. Which skills/topics can you use to empower students (we’re all students!)? Is there a way to combine those topics into a Voltron-like program?
3.) Pitch it to schools and community leaders and students themselves. What’s the feedback? Are people excited about the program? If not, that’s okay — massage it a little, rework some things, and get back to pitching until you find a sound topic.
4.) Partner with an institution! Whether it be a community outreach center or a public high school, make sure your partner knows the demographic like the back of their hand and is dedicated to enacting your program. Your partner is going to be your biggest cheerleader when other people try and bring down your "frivolous little program."
5.) Seek out support from industry professionals. If you’re starting a program on graffiti writing, find some amazing graffiti writers. If your topic is on sustainable agriculture, find a permaculturist. By bringing industry support, you not only legitimize yourself but open up the platform for different ideas, opinions, and messages to be absorbed by your students. Diversity is key to keeping any student — young or old — engaged.
6.) Iterate, iterate, iterate. You most likely won’t have a perfect curriculum, or program for that matter. Things will fall through, balls will be dropped; that’s the nature of any experiment or prototype. Design the best damn curriculum you can, then use feedback and your team’s observations to make the needed changes.
7.) Lastly, put it out for the world to see! By getting feedback from outsiders, you open yourself up to critique for the betterment of your program. Who knows, a friend might tell a friend who might tell someone who ends up being really interested in your program and wants to use your model to build their own. The power of collaboration is truly a force to be reckoned with.
When we first created the Tread Project, the goal was simply to engage the 25 students at Hughes STEM High School. What ensued was something much more:
- The Fashion Design department of the University of Cincinnati’s School of Design has now partnered with Hughes High School to design the school’s new uniforms.
- The Industrial Design department at UC has also partnered with Hughes High to develop a perma/horticulture program.
- Toms Shoes has pledged to donate a pair of shoes toward those in need for every student who made the honor roll. (Once announced, Hughes saw a 30% increase in honor roll achievement last quarter.)
- The University of Cincinnati’s DAAP program provided six scholarships for students from the Tread Project studio to attend the annual DAAP Summer Camp.
A program like this not only enriches the lives of the students involved but those of the educators, administrators, and guest presenters. Interacting with such a vibrant community of students left many of our footwear industry presenters with a rush of energy and enthusiasm. Some even told us that they felt compelled to start similar programs in their own cities. Most, if not all, of the presenters said that the students’ enthusiasm and passion toward footwear reignited their own passion for design.
Where Do We Go from Here?
We all know that our schools are in dire need of help. You’ve read about it, heard about it, probably have even complained about it. Here’s your chance to do something about it. All it really takes is a simple idea and dedicated people in collaboration to make it happen.
We can’t wait for the education industry to completely reform itself. What it needs is a spark, an influx of passionate individuals with meaningful ideas bent on challenging the status quo. We need a diversity of opinion, not just another standardized test.
Where exactly do we go from here? Well, we can go wherever we want, but we’re going to need you to lead us. It’s time to step up, find partners, be confident about your skills, and direct your energy toward making a solid, lasting, positive impact.
[Top image by Albertogp123]