System Design:

New School, New Learning System

This is an example of a project where I worked on Designing a System, with a comprehensive User Experience Design approach. In this case the system is a hybrid product-service, where the product is a school campus and its curricula, and the service is a brand-new educational model. My client was the American Institute of Monterrey —AIM, the first and only E-12 school in Mexico accredited by both the NEASC in the U.S.A. and by the CIS in Europe. The school has approximately 1,500 students representing 30+ Nationalities, is a UNESCO Associate School, and has recognition as a Showcase School by Microsoft, as well as an Apple Distinguished School.


The Goal:

A New High School

I was hired by the General Director (CEO) of the American Institute of Monterrey to help her and her team of Directors design a brand new High School. At the time I was hired, the school did not have any high school grades (10th thru 12th). The school's grade went up to 9th grade, which is middle school in Mexico. Upon completing 9th grade, AIM's students had to attend another institution to complete their high school studies. The CEO of AIM was on a mission to convince her Board of Investors to expand AIM to include high school grades and compete against the other popular high schools in town.

The Challenge:

Market Penetration, User Acquisition & Retention

There were many difficult challenges that my team and I had to face for this project, but the one that stands out is competing against the existing high schools in town. Traditionally, a whopping 80% of students graduating from 9th grade in AIM would attend one of the three most popular high schools in town. After surveying and interviewing the students, I discovered that 98% of 9th graders intended to attend one of the 3 most popular high schools, rather than stay at AIM's new high school. Their primary motive seemed to be cultural and peer pressure, attending the prestigious institute that everyone else attends, rather than one that nobody knows about.

The Solution:

Stand Out, Innovate UX >than the Competition

When I joined the CEO's team, their plan was to promote the new high school by incorporating a handful of special courses such as Forensic Science and Nanotechnology, as well as a Third Language program. However, within my first couple of weeks of joining the project, I researched the competition and found out that they were already offering similar courses. It was then when I realized that AIM's new high school needed a strategy that would make them stand out more from the competition, if they hoped to have any chance at penetrating the market that the competition was already dominating.

Although I was aware of the challenge from a business and marketing perspective, my focus had actually always been on the needs of the users. I believed that the solution existed somewhere in solving the needs of the users, and if the needs of the users were not met, then the solution could not be a very good one. In this case the users were of course, the students. In analyzing the needs of the users I looked at the future and the kinds of jobs they may have available upon graduating.

After a month of intense research and analysis, I came up with a proposal for a complete overhaul of the educational model for a new high school. I considered the threat of technological unemployment, among other things, and made a humble attempt at designing a curricula that was focused on skills, rather than knowledge. I also considered the statistics behind how many college students struggle to find the right subject(s) to study because high schools do a poor job at preparing them to make such decisions. 


I replaced the traditional subject matters with what I called "Professional Academies", organized into five main sectors: Universal Skills, Research Skills, Engineering Skills, Management Skills, and Artistic Skills. Otherwise known as the Foundations Academy, Laboratory & Research Academy, Engineering & Technology Academy, Business & Management Academy, and Arts & Humanities Academy.

I started putting together infographics with Adobe Illustrator and Power Point presentations to help the CEO and her team better understand my wild ideas. I assembled an initial infographic describing the differences between each of the four professional academies and how they relate to a variety of careers. I voiced my concern about the need for greater innovation in order to better serve the students —provide a better User Experience— and have a greater chance of penetrating the dominated market.

To my surprise, the CEO and her team of Directors liked my proposal to the point where it suffered minimal changes. To surprise me even more, the CEO somehow convinced the Board of Investors that my proposal was a good idea and a feasible business strategy, and she did so within two months. Considering that my educational innovation ideas had already been turned down before by a dozen schools, I was skeptical of my proposal being taken seriously.

After receiving the green light from the Board, the CEO asked me to elaborate further on the new model, which she aptly named "APS Academies". APS doubling as an acronym for both, AIM Preparatory School and Authentic Products & Services —which ended up sticking as the name of the model.

Since the campus where the high school would be located was already housing the middle school grades —6th thru 8th— the CEO suggested incorporating the middle school grades into the new APS model; so I assembled an infographic depicting the possible —standard— progress students could make throughout the program. I broke down the process into 4 phases: Introduction to Project-Based Work (6th), Introduction to the Academies Model (7th & 8th), Choosing a Professional Path (9th & 10th), and Professional Specialization (11th & 12th). From a UX perspective, I liked the idea of giving the students more time to learn about the academies, their related skill sets, and work on projects. After all, schools tend to rush lesson plans and consequently disrupt the quality of students' learning experiences.

There were aspects and features within my proposal that were particularly difficult to grasp and understand even for the CEO and her team of Directors. One such aspect was my replacement of the traditional Teacher Role with two new roles: Coach and Academy Expert or Professional Advisor. This particular element proved hard to convey despite my use of visuals and infographics. It must've been challenging a concept that was difficult to change in people's minds; the concept of a Teacher.

I assembled a series of infographics that visually explained the difference between the roles and responsibilities of a Parent, a Coach, and an Academy Expert/Advisor. To do this, I had to incorporate research in the fields of Psychology, Pedagogy, and Human Development. I found myself mapping out the growth stages of students into milestones, from birth up to adulthood. In doing so, I had serendipitously mapped out the different User Experiences that the users needed within each phase.

In addition to carrying out research and assembling infographics and power point presentations to visually describe the product, service, and business strategy —curricula, pedagogy, educational model, student growth stages, teacher roles, etc.,—  I also worked on numerous Excel Sheets and Word Documents, helping the CEO's team nail down the specifics of the project. This included but was not limited to working on technology requirements with the Director of Technology, job descriptions and professional development with the Directors of Human Resources and Staff, course-planning with the Directors of Curriculum Development —English and Spanish—, budget adjusting with the Director of Accounting and the head of Purchasing Department, and campus facilities planning with the Director of Operations and head Architect, among others. For the latter one, I found myself editing files in AutoCAD of the campus blueprints to help the Architects visualize my ideas.

One year before the inauguration of the new high school, the CEO and her team came up with a strategy to help increase student interest —User Retention— in the new high school model: they had the 9th graders partake in the design of the new cafeteria for the new high school. For this, the 9th graders, who totalled approximately 120 students, were organized into teams of four, comprised of at least one student specializing in one of the four professional academies. Four industry experts were brought in: an architect, an accountant, a chief operations officer, and a graphic designer. 

Students with the Engineering Academy role were tasked to work on blueprints for the floor plan of the cafeteria with guidance of the Architect. Those with the Management Academy role were tasked with coming up with a business plan for the cafeteria, complete with budget break down, cost of goods sold and food prices, with guidance from the Accountant. Those with the Research Academy role were tasked with designing a cafeteria menu that was both attractive to students and provided acceptable nutritional value, with guidance from the Chief Operations Officer and a professional Nutritionist. Finally those with the Art Academy role were tasked with designing a logo, color palette, and overall visual style for the cafeteria interior design, with guidance from the professional Graphic Designer. 

The students within each team had to work together, cross-referencing the tasks and needs of each academy role to ensure team interdisciplinary alignment. Teams would then compete against each other, showcasing their cafeteria designs to a panel of industry experts posing as judges, as well as putting up their designs to be voted by the students of the others grades —6th, 7th, and 8th—. The winning proposals within each Academy would then be picked to form a finalist team that would then work closely with the industry professionals to complete the design and make it a reality.

The cafeteria design workshop-tournament was very successful at increasing awareness and understanding among the students, teachers, and parents-school community about the new APS model and how it works. In addition to the cafeteria design, the CEO also organized a number of other awareness-building events, to help increase interest in the APS model. One such event was the hosting of a conference offered by a prominent scholar, Dr. Yong Zhao, who has successfully transformed schools in China, Australia, and the United States. Dr. Zhao was a key adviser for the film Most Likely to Succeed, which champions an overhaul of the educational system. Dr. Zhao's conference was hosted in a large theatre, and key people were invited, including governors, educational bureau staff, business owners and investors, and principals and directors of other schools and universities. 

The conference successfully stimulated conversation in the community about the urgent need to innovate education, placed APS on the radar, and even prompted a local university to invite another prominent scholar Dr. Tony Wagner to give another conference. Dr. Wagner directed the documentary film The Finland Phenomenon, and also advised the documentary film Most Likely to Succeed.

Image from left to right: Martha Cruz, Director of Admissions, Dave Arnold, APS Principal, Dr. Yong Zhao, Elizabeth Huergo, General Director and CEO of AIM, and Dougal Mac Gregor, Special Projects Consultant. 

APS Development Team: Elizabeth Huergo —General Director—, Shelagh Ryan —Director of Curriculum Development—, Guadalupe Gonzalez —Director of Technology—, Dave Arnold —Director of Secondary Education—, Dr. Melva Martinez —Director of Academic Programs—, Hilda Davila —Director of Accounting—, Olga Guzman —Director of Public Relations—, Martha Aguiñaga —Operations Manager—, Martha Cruz —Director of Admissions—, Daniel Puga —Head of Arts of Humanities—, Lilian Figueroa —Manager of Architecture & Campus Infrastructure—, Leonor Salazar Gonzalez —Curriculum Development Assistant—, Alejandra Salazar —Admissions Program Assistant—.

To learn more about my work with AIM and the APS Project, please contact me.

To learn more about AIM and APS please contact the school at or visit the school's website.


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