How can students change the world? According to Sophie Webster, a junior in the Academy for Global Studies at Austin High School, “one step at a time.”

Last Spring, Sophie participated in the ISSN Student Design Collaborative, a semester-long project  involving over 50 students from ISSN schools across the country as well as students in Shanghai, China. The students engaged in design thinking, first developed at the Stanford Design School, to identify and craft potential solutions to problems within their communities reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development goals.

In their online meetings, Sophie’s group “bonded over Covid. It was so interesting learning whether other kids were in school or online and how they were handling it.” Following the steps of the design thinking process, the conversation led to discussions about how Covid and other disruptions to education were affecting students in other parts of the world. What was it like for girls to be denied an education in Afghanistan? The group chose to address SDG 4: Quality Education, by developing a project focused on improving literacy in their communities.

The Student Design Collaborative experience had a profound impact in Sophie’s life outside of school. While she was learning the process, she was also working with a group of girls from Austin High School on a project to help women experiencing homelessness in the Austin community. Sophie remembers saying “hey guys, guess what I just learned!” and leading her friends in applying the design thinking process to zero in on the problem homeless women face in acquiring feminine hygiene products. The students developed a sophisticated presentation to parents, teachers and activist groups in the community showing both the unmet need and the inequities homeless women face when the cost of such products is driven by “luxury taxes”. “Tampons aren’t a luxury for homeless women” says Sophie.

The Austin community responded by donating hundreds of boxes of feminine hygiene products and other resources which Sophie and her friends distributed through partnerships they formed with groups such as Austin’s Mobile Loaves and Fishes and he HEB grocery market chain. Sophie recalls handing out the products to women living under a bridge who told her “nobody else ever thought of this for us.” She added, “that’s the part I like best – connecting to people who need help.”

Can students make a difference in the world? “Yes, we can” says Sophie “we helped these women in this moment.” And that’s how it starts.