Thesis: This Is Water

How can design mitigate the effects of chronic stress among high school students?

This Is Water, examined chronic stress on high school students and what design can do to help mitigate the psychological and physiological effects of that stress. Reid Henkel and I partnered with The Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, to create a ten week program that uses Reflective Making (form-giving & storytelling) techniques to increase students’ awareness about the effects of their stress (what it does, says, feels, and thinks) on both themselves and others in their lives. By engaging students in conversations with their stress they will be better equipped to thrive in this world because if you can change the way you see your stress you can change the stress you see.

Download a PDF version of the thesis book here.


A 10 week scaffolded curriculum focused on students’ awareness of the effects of stress on themselves and others through form-giving and storytelling techniques.

Week One

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Our curriculum had students reflect on what their stress is Doing, Saying, Feeling, and Thinking as a way to increase their awareness around the effects of stress on themselves and others. Every week the students map their stress along these four dimensions on a binary scale of QUIET & LOUD. Using the metaphor of music, volume carries no inherent value between quiet and loud.

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In conjunction with the DSFT Map, we began tracking the students self-reported answers to two questions…..In the past week, how often did you think about what your own stress was DSFT? Other people’s stress was DSFT?

Week Two


We had students create abstract representations of stress, using prompts (such as What color is it? How heavy does it feel in your hand? How much room does it take up?) to help them visualize the internal psychological manifestations of  their stress.

Having to explain their forms forced the students to tell their personalized story of stress. Some told stories that were abstract while others told stories of stress as a character, but without a physical form there would be no reason to apply language

Week Three

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We asked students to locate their abstract forms from Week 2 onto body icons in order to connect their internal responses with the physical manifestations of their stress. We found that the body icons acted as signifiers for the story, which they were able to break into different parts for different parts of the body.

Week Four


We had prototyped the first three weeks of the curriculum last semester, but starting in Week 4 our lesson plans were responsive to insights we had while facilitating the exercises. So after seeing the personal stories over the past two weeks, we wanted to have the students circle out to begin to think about other people.

We provided them pre-made felt characters and had them work in pairs to further develop the characters’ needs, wants, and obstacles. The lesson acted as a basic projection exercise for the students.

The physicality of the characters forced distancing from the self (kind of like art therapy), and working in pairs forced negotiation which inherently allowed for a shared story.

Week Five

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The shared nature of the character development led us to think about ways to have the students build on the projections they had made the previous week. We had them bring these characters through a role playing exercise. Students were given a goal for the day (seeing a movie with friends) and three stressful events that happened during the day (train delay, friend making fun of you for being late, and mom calling asking you to pick up their brother).

Playing as their character, students chose one of four responses for both the internal and external reactions to each event. The responses ranged from least mindful to most mindful.

The cards forced the students to take time in their decision making. The scenarios truly resonated with the them, especially when the mom called they all groaned.

Week Six

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Looking at the reaction to the mom calling, we wanted to create an exercise that helped the students see other players in the scenarios. We identified actors within the story prompts from Week 5, that were not explicitly mentioned. Direct and indirect effects on those actors.

The visual map allowed the students to literally see the other actors in the system and because of the story the students were able to identify the tertiary characters. One of our students even realized that effects on others can be positive as well as negative.

Week Seven

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In Week 5, one of our students asked “So what’s the end game, for us?” We knew from that insight that we had to take the conversation from the theoretical to explicitly asking for real-life events from the students. Using the same language of DSFT, we asked them to identify ways in which we can shift their DSFT in order to elicit a different reaction from others. Because if you react the same way over and over to the same stress-event, you can’t expect a different result.

Week Eight

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For curiosity’s sake, we attempted a control group to evaluate our students’ anecdotal insights that we have been gathering from the 2Qs and DSFT mapping. We disseminated a survey which we also gave to our students.

The first two questions were yes/no questions to get students in the mindset of stress awareness. The third question asked how often students saw their reactions to stressful events affect other people. Students answered on a 5 point scale: Never, A Little, Sometimes, A Lot, All The Time.

Weeks Nine & Ten

The last two weeks provided space for open discourse and reflection. We shared the results from the previous weeks and insights found throughout the way. As a class, we asked and answered questions. As facilitators, we helped make connections and made observations about the growth of awareness in each student.



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