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Design Thinking Education at High Tech High

The first project in my sophomore year in architecture at Rhode Island School of Design was 'A Box.' We were given a list of materials we could use (you could not use more that what was listed), and the box must contain art tool(s) or art supplies. For kids who were sitting in the studio dreaming of museums and gorgeous homes, this was a giant hammer on the heads....say WHAT? The next one was 'A Wall.' The fist step was to define ' a box' and 'a wall.'

What is the definition of a box?

What is the definition of a box to you?

What does a box do?

What can a box do?

What is the relationship between a box and what it contains?

What is the relationship between a box and a user?

Can you interpret the use of the tool into a mechanism or construction of the box?

Can you make the user understand the operation of the tool by operating the box?

It helped us to break down the formal and conventional understanding of the elements, and how to design from the fundamental understanding of the elements. It must be the point of departure for good designs. Otherwise, the design stays as a good copy without any originality. It also helps me understand the world in a different way, in constant search of what lies under what we see: what are the fundamental connections between events that are seemingly unrelated? The practice goes ell beyond the realm of design.

As a mom, I started seeing how valuable this education could be to the younger kids. I started reading a lot about 'design thinking' education in elementary school level. My fierce educator friend Jean Kaneko invited me to assist her with 4th-grade visual arts studio 'design thinking' classes last year. At first, I thought the challenge was going to be how to dig deeper and break down the conventional understanding of the elements. Soon I realized that I was looking at it from an adult's point of view. There is little 'break-down' required since they have not formed any stubborn conventional concepts about the elements yet, and it was so easy to pull out their own interpretations. And it was magical. The biggest hurdle became time. In the standard school setting, it is unlikely to let these projects encompass all it could. In college design studios, two full days a week are allotted for these teachings, and we also work around the clock beyond the studio classes. In the normal elementary school setting, the kids get a few hours a week for 4-6 weeks. It is difficult to get the students immersed in a process in that time frame.

Jean invited me to come and see High Tech High( campus in San Diego where she was doing her fellowship. It was living proof that design thinking based project learning can happen - only if the school has the courage to overturn the conventions established in agricultural America. Physical Education class in middle school starts with biology lessons to understand the acids in a body: how it is produced and what it does for the muscles and other body systems. Then it moves onto the literature unit reflecting on body images and health. Then they start on designing an exercise routine that will help to achieve their health goal. The final step was to design and build a piece of equipment to assist the designed exercise routine. And the final presentation has to include how the final product helps the body and its various acids function. I admire it as a complete project based learning. It also holds high standards for presentation - some of the projects I saw had college level quality of presentation and craftsmanship. I believe that it is critical to teach the kids how to build things with their hands. There are so many life skills required in building things with your hands: planning, details, preparation, patience, perseverance, ...and empowerment when you complete the project.

I see a big movement of this design thinking education sweeping the world. I hope the U.S. catches up and re-think our education to prepare our kids for the future jobs we do not know what to call...

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