Sunday, March 13, 2016

Creativity and Design (Part 3 --

On Friday, I started the day at a new public charter school,, which aims to be the high school version of Stanford's  The school started last year with a group of 9th graders and plans to add a new class each year until they reach capacity.  They are also building a gorgeous new facility on Oracle's campus that the company helped fund.  In the meantime, they are acting like designers and creatively making the most of a neat, mostly open space they have now with make-shift classrooms separated by whiteboards, and building on the theme of the, making sure everything had wheels.

It was fun to see how the teaching staff started every morning -- coming together for a standing meeting (scrum), putting all hands in, and yelling a new cheer to kick-off the day.  From there, teachers went to their spaces where they were joined by the students.  Fridays have an unusual schedule because every Friday afternoon is set aside for staff development and the morning is focused on design-lab time.  Students take short (about 6 weeks long) courses of their choice ranging from "building social seating" (groups were each making wooden benches of various designs) to techniques to understand empathy (a classroom-based course where students discussed empathy, watched videos, and did small activities).  Since all students are working on design labs at the same time, all staff (including the curriculum director) teach a lab.  Many teachers do it with a co-teacher.  (Below: a 3D model of the bench, followed by the workshop where teams were building indoors thanks to the rain that took away their outdoor space.)


Another common theme from these awesome schools that also echoed was integrated social-emotional instruction.  The entire school watched a documentary on male gender-related stereotypes and challenges last week and watched one on female challenges this week.  Afterwards, they discussed the videos and what they learned in smaller groups.  Some of Dan Pink's books emphasize the importance for designers to be both empathetic (traditionally seen as a woman's role) and willing to start building solutions (traditionally seen as a man's role).  Through the videos and discussion, they hoped to both address the cultural dangers of a macho man or 'perfect'-bodied woman, but also reinforce the positive view of how to be better designers.  (Below: the empathy lab classroom followed by the open center-space where they watched the documentary.)


Before I left, I had a great conversation with Matt, one of the two math teachers, about how he approaches the subject in such a non-traditional school.  It was awesome to see that his thoughts are not too different from mine, and very much in line with many of the group-concensus ideas from the #MTBoS (despite not participating directly on Twitter).  His initial curriculum is a hybrid of video lectures (based on concept development, not example problems) and digital practice problems through MathXL.  He sees the same issues that I do from these tools (students not always engaging in videos and digital curriculum presenting a chopped-up view of mathematics), but also takes the designer perspective that it is much better than a traditional, one-pace lecture course and he continues to ask big questions and redesign with his team as he goes.

We also talked through my Grand Challenge Design course for next year.  Given all that I wanted to embed in the course (more than 4 years of college), he highly recommended that I scope it DOWN.  One thing he liked from their design labs was modularity and choice -- there were labs on real-world building (like the benches), design mindsets (like the empathy class), and there was an incubator program for students who wanted to take an idea to market (something an Olin friend was volunteering with that day).  He recommended that, if at all possible, I didn't work alone, opting instead to team teach.  Given cost constraints, I may need to get creative here (community volunteers, recent graduates who want to TA, or student teachers all come to mind).

Matt also acknoledged the challenges I would face in teaching design, the largest being student apathy during open-ended activities and a fear of opening up while interviewing or doing empathy-building activities.  From what I know of students' reaction to similar things I have done in the past, it will be a big hurdle.  To help, he suggested lots of improv games as daily class starters to get students more comfortable being silly and taking social risks.  He also recommended lots of hands-on quick-build activities (such as the popsicle stick house that has to survive a "windstorm") to get students to practice the "bias towards action" that designers always talk about.


  1. Andy, I also think it would be beneficial for you to have a buddy or two.... This is a tremendous amount of work to do on your own. This may be where you want to spend some time creating a PLN to support you.

    1. I think a diversified network will be huge. Locally, the robotics students, parents, and alums will be an enormous support in building facility capacity, bringing in new technical skill, and supporting future student interest. I also have my Olin network of educators and hackers who have been incredibly supportive thus far and continue to push the envelope in their own spheres. From this past week, I met a number of new educators who have already poured a ton of knowledge my direction and shared their contact information for further follow-up. More to your comment, I think I will need to construct a network of other design and engineering teachers on Twitter to plug into a flow of resources and be able to strike up conversations in real time that connect to new opportunities or major issues as they arise.

      The ideal solution is another person who is fully invested such as another Byron teacher, a local volunteer who wants to commit on a regular schedule, or an intern teacher who would spend the full school year in Byron.