Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology

Empowering high school students to play an active role in their education

The Williamsburg High School of Arts and Technology in Brooklyn aims to cultivate the next generation of computer engineers—creative, innovative thinkers with both the hard and soft skills necessary to become leaders of the future. To get there, they wanted students to become co-creators in their own education environment rather than passive recipients of it, but they weren’t sure how to engage students in this way. 

To guide WHSAT in engaging students in co-creation, Openbox designed and ran three engagement experiments, each an effort to solve a real issue around school, that would bring students and staff together as thought partners. From there we codified the learnings and best practices that emerged from the experiments into a set of design principles that the school can readily use and build upon for future co-creation activities—amplifying the equitable, arts-based, and experimental ethos of the school.

WHSAT is a public high school in Brooklyn, New York with 90% Black and Latinx students (2018–2019 NYSED).

How we did it

  • Alignment on project vision and goals with the core team at WHSAT. This included the identification of key audiences: students, teachers, and community school staff.
  • Immersion into the school’s ecosystem through observation of activities during and outside of classes; intercept interviews in the hallways and on the playground; and more in-depth interviews with students and staff to understand the current issues around their educational goals, as well as their potential needs and preferences for co-creation.
  • A hands-on synthesis and ideation workshop with the core team to discuss insights from research and start generating ideas for co-creation experiments.
  • Design and live prototype of three co-creation experiments that ran across the school for a week. These brought students and staff together to solve real issues uncovered in our earlier research, while testing modes of co-creation including variables such as decision moments, location, timing, and roles.
  • Development of co-creation principles in partnership with the core team that the school can readily apply to future co-creation activities.
(1/5) Students offered ideas on improving their school in exchange for snacks; we got insights into the issues at the top of their minds.
(2/5) The first experiment involved an after school town hall where students and staff discussed their respective perspectives on a contested bathroom access policy.
(3/5) The second experiment empowered students to vote online to update their school currency program, using ballot options created entirely by the student body in the days beforehand.
(4/5) The third experiment had student teams redesign a past lesson plan and award each other with awards such as “Most Practical Lesson Plan,” or “Most Original Lesson Plan.”
(5/5) School staff members sketching a co-creation roadmap for the school.


Through our work, we empowered WHSAT to establish a culture of experimentation and co-creation between staff and students. Our distillation of research learnings into a set of memorable, actionable principles meant our client could pick them up immediately and start using them.

In fact, during our meeting, one staff member applied the first principle, “Make the act of participation visible,” to an event from a year ago: the school had polled students about where they wanted to go on their senior trip, and honored their choice—but not communicated that the decision was based on the students’ vote. Maybe they could still convey the intention! The assistant principal remarked: “There are things that we do, but we had never thought about what the key elements of co-creation are.”

At the end of 2020, Openbox worked again with WHSAT to reflect on the changes the school has made as a result of COVID-19 and the transformation of the education experience into a largely virtual and isolated one for students and staff. We engaged the WHSAT community using human-centered design research, adapted to an entirely remote setting, in order to assess the student experience in the past spring and fall, and to decide what adaptations would be beneficial to carry forward to 2021 and beyond.

Lowering barriers

We designed our materials to meet students where they are, literally: dashing between classes with little time to spare. Posters with bright colors, bold messages, and hand-drawn illustrations announced events on hallway floors and bathroom doors. The Openbox team also spent the entire experiment week on campus, building relationships with students and generating buzz to encourage participation. We knew we had made good progress when students started affectionately greeting one of our team members as “the poop guy!” (We might have used a certain emoji to advertise the bathroom town hall.)

Making it real

Even though our scope with the school was around the process of co-creation, we used real content in our experiments. This provided our client an opportunity to jumpstart conversations about school policies that needed urgent attention.

Our scrappy prototyping approach was also a plus in the students’ minds, giving them confidence in the school’s commitment to make real change happen. Over the course of one week, we heard student sentiment shift from “Are you actually going to make it happen?” to “I wasn’t expecting to actually get the survey the day after! You guys covered everything.”

Bringing our authentic selves

We pride ourselves on being open-minded, empathic, and engaging when we conduct research. By building authentic relationships within a community, we can deliver results that speak better to them.

Our client observed: “I didn't know the social depth with which you work. You clearly put substantial thought into the human interaction. I was really impressed by the richness of it.”