research, strategic design, experience design

empowering kids to build intercultural compentency

empowering kids to build intercultural compentency
Co-Lead Designer
PanPal Project

As third-culture kids ourselves, we have enjoyed the privilege of traveling to different countries and getting exposed to cultural differences early on in our childhood. This led us to wonder how we can extend this learning to kids without asking them to travel outside of their classroom. After research and stakeholder interviews, we designed our brief to be:

How do we foster cultural awareness and intercultural competence in young students (4th/5th graders) through the lens of food culture?

The PanPal Project: A One-Year Curriculum for Two

The PanPal Project is a cross-cultural curriculum connecting students from one classroom to another through activities around food culture. In this prototype, we chose Indonesia, my home country, as a source of content and inspiration.

The PanPal Kit

Students from two classrooms at two different locations are paired for a series of activities around food culture, culminating in the exchange and cooking of recipes at the end of each quarter.

Self-Other Bridge Model

The Pan Pal Project seeks to empower students to practice a mode of engagement with cultural difference that involves:

  1. Critical self-reflection
  2. Perspective-taking
  3. Dynamic collaboration

Research Deep-Dive

Interviews & Activities

To gain a better understanding of K-12 education especially in the lens of intercultural exchange, we dove into primary and secondary research. As part of our primary research, we first conducted 60min interviews with experts in education and culture as well as teachers in a myriad of settings.

Some of the experts we heard from

We also conducted activities with our primary target audience, K-12 children. From card sorting to doodling and story-time, we got to hear directly from kids how they like to learn and play.

Snippets of activities done with 4th-5th graders
Shaping the Brief

From our conversation with experts, including a Professor of Education at and an Intercultural Competence, Diversity, and Inclusion Training Specialist at Peace Corps, we learned the following terms which are widely used in cultural education.

  • Cultural awareness is the ability to understand the differences between oneself and people from other countries/backgrounds, especially differences in attitude and values.
  • Intercultural competence is a range of cognitive, affective, and behavioral skills that allows one to communicate effectively and appropriately with people of other cultures. 

Meanwhile, from our target audience: K-12 students, we consistently found them more excited and expressive when thinking and talking about food. Our research also led us to choose 4th and 5th graders as the student age group that's most optimal for intercultural activities. This led us to refine our brief into: How do we foster cultural awareness and intercultural competence in young students (4th/5th graders) through the lens of food culture?


From our research activities, we affinity diagrammed our learning into these main insights:

  1. Students need guidance in the beginning, but ultimately they need trust and freedom in order to be creative and stay motivated.
  2. To be engaged, students need to be involved in activities that are both purposeful and participatory.
  3. Current curriculum teaches “culture” through the lens of another subject in order to engage students in a more relevant and tangible way.
  4. Responsible cross cultural communication requires intentionality in order to ensure a parallel experience.
  5. Exploring self awareness lets one develop a posture of openness and a thoughtful lens to engage with differences.
  6. A successful lesson enables students to both engage in a dialogue and demonstrate their knowledge.
  7. Students make connections based on similar interests. Food is found to be a on average high in students’ list of interests.

Guiding Principles

From our insights, we further distilled into principles that guide our concept exploration and prototyping.

  1. Structured, Yet Flexible: Gives guidance but provide space for creativity.
  2. Tangible & Actionable: Provides tangible and measurable milestones.
  3. Straightforward & Purposeful: Provides clear value to the students.
  4. Relevant: Utilizes a topic of interest and relevancy to majority of students.
  5. Encourages Self Awareness: Provides a mean of self reflection to prepare for engaging with differences.

Concept Explorations & Prototyping

We then use these principles to focus our explorations, benchmark our prototype, and lead us to The Pan Pal Project.

For the full case study of this project, please inquire directly at

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