SPS projects bring fresh perspectives to business partners

Memes may be ubiquitous on social media, but they aren’t yet a mainstay of corporate marketing. That’s why the memes that our Student Powered Solutions team in Woodland Hills School District created proved so intriguing to staff members from Covestro.

“I like that they’re out-of-the box,” said Madeline Kennedy, a Covestro staffer in Polyurethane Advocacy and Sustainability.

The students developed the memes after Covestro challenged them to find ways of reaching a young audience to build understanding about how its products are manufactured and used.

Woodland Hills’ Covestro project was one of several that SPS teams presented this Spring. Others included a project at Penn Hills High School addressing safety issues for Carmeuse, a limestone mining company and another in which students from Blackhawk and Mohawk school districts compared alternative power sources for First Energy Corp. Two additional projects also were still underway—one between South Allegheny High School and Allegheny Land Trust that’s set for final presentation in early May and another that Pittsburgh Perry Traditional Academy is doing with ALCOSAN.

SPS projects all employ Human Centered Design (HCD) methods and Project-Based Learning (PBL). The HCD methods help students organize their work and ensure that it addresses concerns of different stakeholders. PBL techniques give teachers a pedagogical alternative to traditional classroom lectures and one that gives students opportunities apply content knowledge and develop the soft skills needed to work in teams.

In a survey of 555 students, the Woodland Hills team found that humor and entertainment are top reasons teens tune into social media. Because of that, they made most of their memes funny—often depicting a world bereft of products made with Covestro polymers such as office chairs, mattresses and automotive paint. The survey achieved a remarkable 100 percent response because team members either administered it in person or obtained assistance from social studies teachers who administered it in class. Surveys typically generate no more than a 15 percent response rate because there’s usually mailed no one standing by to see them through to completion.

“I thought the survey was really good,” said Covestro STEM Coordinator Ben Renwick.

Students said they learned a lot from the project, both about Covestro and its products and about themselves and how to work together.

“The project definitely changed my viewpoint,” said one young woman, noting that her own attitudes about plastics and chemicals initially had been in line with those the team’s survey had uncovered. The survey found a significant majority of students had negative perceptions of both.

Another young woman said she realized she liked doing the project because “I need to see things” to learn. “I don’t like it if people just tell me something.” She also said she found she really enjoyed doing a presentation for an audience.

The Penn Hills teams that investigated ways to address safety challenges for Carmeuse also took away lessons about soft skills.

“Working together as a group,” was a bit of a challenge, said one young man. “It was hard coming together around an idea.”

Nonetheless, they worked their way through the challenges of collaboration and came up with several recommendations that Carmeuse found helpful.

“There are some great ideas here,” said David Sweitzer, Director of Risk Management who listened the presentations at Carmeuse’ Downtown headquarters along with some 80+ other staff members. “I love the app and the wall of safety. Those are some things we’ll be advancing.”

Students had recommended the company supply mining vehicle operators with an app to avoid accidents. The app would tell drivers where other vehicles were located, much the same as apps used to track snow plows.

A wall with profiles of staff safety accomplishments was part of a package of ideas students presented for motivating employees to follow and improve safety protocols and outcomes.