Professional Learning

Studio H: How Design/Build Curriculum Can Transform a Community

Students design and build a farmers’ market pavillion

December 20, 2011

A billboard at the entrance to Bertie County, North Carolina, reads, "Design. Build. Transform." That's exactly what's been happening in this rural community for the past year. Thanks to an innovative curriculum called Studio H, high school students here have stepped into the role of designers, builders, and transformers of their own community.

As the culminating project of a year-long effort, students designed and constructed a 2,000-square-foot, wood-framed pavilion for a new farmers' market. In the process, they earned early college credits along with summer stipends. While mastering difficult technical skills, they learned to apply a problem-solving method that's likely to stick with them for life. They also became valued citizens. At the ribbon-cutting celebration, the mayor of their hometown presented them with the key to their city.

Studio H wasn't without challenges, including setbacks caused by natural disasters. But lessons learned should interest any educators looking for new strategies to unleash students' creative capacity.

Emily Pilloton, the visionary behind Studio H, is eager to see this model spread to other public schools. She and partner Matthew Miller moved their nonprofit design firm from San Francisco to Bertie County to get the project launched. Artifacts and reflections from Studio H are on display at the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, through February . The Studio H website offers more visuals and videos.

In a recent phone interview, Pilloton shared a few insights from the exhausting but exhilarating first year of Studio H. What's the value of teaching students to think like designers?

Emily Pilloton: Design is really about problem solving. I see design as a way to solve urgent problems in beautiful ways.

What are the logistics for Studio H?

It's three hours a day. Students take this in their junior year. It includes a design lab that builds creative and visual fundamentals, and 'shop class with a purpose' that teaches iterative prototyping, material sensibility, and full-scale building. Studio H runs in parallel to core subjects, requiring applied math, physical and social science, and writing. Students earn high school credit and early college credit through a local community college. During the pilot year, students were part of program for first-generation college-goers. Many are from families facing socioeconomic challenges, but these students have the drive to go to college.

How did the farmers' market project come about?

The market was our third of three projects. Coming in, many students were starting from absolute zero. They didn't have a background in art. Many had never held a hammer. They needed to learn a whole set of skills, and so we started with something small and manageable. Their first project was to design a board for a beanbag-toss game, like a carnival game. It was the perfect object to learn about simple wood construction and also graphic design. They had to think about color theory, proportion and scale, and why graphic design is important. The second project was designing chicken coops.

Why chicken coops?

A flood had left many families homeless or lacking in basics. Giving them chicken coops would help families that needed a sustainable food source. For our students, designing coops was their first leap to architecture. It was something familiar, but we pushed them to go beyond what a chicken coop looked like in their head. We wanted them to realize that some crazy ideas are actually wonderful. They came up with some of the weirdest-looking chicken coops you've ever seen.

And from there, you were ready to tackle the farmers' market?

We wanted students to build something big and to work on something they were passionate about. We pushed them to think about framing problems. It turns out the real problem wasn't that the community lacked a farmers' market. It's that the community has a high obesity rate and lacks access to healthy food. Understanding that meant getting them to constantly ask why. For some students, that way of thinking eventually became second nature.

What were the biggest take-aways from the first year?

The best thing you can say to a student is, "Yes, and?" They'd bring us a sketch or a model and we'd say, that's great. What else can you do? "Yes, and?" is a way to foster creativity. Acknowledge that they've accomplished something, and then ask for something more.

What else?

Something crucial to Studio H is that these projects are for the community. We're giving them away. (The farmers' market will now be run by the local community.) Students need to learn to truly be citizens, not via Facebook but at a town hall meeting. That's why we push our students to execute. We could have stopped at just model-making for the farmers' market. We could have done an exhibition and called it a day. But 80 percent of learning happens when you realize, my concept now has to go through these filters of the real world. We may have to make compromises. Design really starts when it's out in the world.

How does the community respond to projects like this?

I'm pretty sure this is the only farmers' market in the country designed and built by high school students. That's the thing that people take away. The community needs to know that youth are an asset.

Where does a project like this fit into current discussions of 21st-century skills?

Our students are learning skills like welding and carpentry, 2D and 3D modeling. But those are the vehicles to do something else. We blog as much as we're on the table saw. We're giving them tools for entrepreneurship, for innovation, for local citizenship and engagement. We're giving them a way to think through problems in their own lives. Design is all about possibility. For a student, that's the best gift you can give them.

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  • Professional Learning
  • Design Thinking
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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