Rachel Lehmann-Haupt

Senior Editor, TED Books, TED Books

This conversation is closed.

How can design-driven and vocational education improve our schools and communities? Join our live Q&A on Feb 5th at 3PM

In 2009, author and TED speaker Emily Pilloton moved to Bertie County, North Carolina — the poorest county in the state with a population of just 20,000. There she and her partner Matthew Miller launched Studio H, a design/build program aimed to inspire creativity in high school kids.

Through the eyes of her students, Pilloton tells the story of the group’s hopes, failures, triumphs, and the power of design-driven education. According to Pilloton, we can dramatically revamp vocational education and build the change we wish to see in the world. Ultimately her students were given the key to the city by their mayor for initiating, designing, and building three public chicken coops and a 2000-square-foot public farmer’s market.

Buy and read the book:

Kindle:
http://tinyurl.com/b57a6em

Nook:
http://tinyurl.com/b2dkvka

iBookstore:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/tell-them-i-built-this/id582786872?mt=11

Or download the TED Books app for your iPad or iPhone . (http://www.ted.com/pages/tedbooks) A subscription costs $4.99 a month, and is an all-you-can-read buffet.

Author and TED Speaker Emily Pilloton will be joining us for a one-hour live conversation on TUESDAY, FEB 5th at 12PM PST/3PM EST. Mark your calendars!

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    Feb 5 2013: Michelle- YES! I think it goes both ways - design as a process can be integrated into math, science, etc, and we can also do a better job (when I say we, I mean Studio H, design courses, and the arts) of integrating math and science. The STEM-to-STEAM initiatives are starting to look at this critically - that some of the science-driven education we see is actually not so far off from more creative design-driven education. Creativity seems to be the common denominator. I think the creativity it takes to solve a calculus equation is not all that different from the rigor you see in a designer or artist or architect's practice.
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    Feb 5 2013: Hi Emily! Great talk. Vocational education programs are sorely needed, but I'm curious if there are ways to incorporate design into standard educational programs like math, science or (maybe this is a stretch!) even history and English classes?
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    Feb 5 2013: Thank you so much for setting this up. I hope the story of Studio H inspires people - it continues to inspire me. I think we can all invest in youth, and design-based education is just one way to do so. I really see creativity and building as these two secret weapons that light people up, especially young people, and I hope we can all put in the work to make more opportunities available to our youth.
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    Feb 5 2013: Emily, our time is just about up.

    Any closing comments?

    Thanks so much for joining us, and for writing such an interesting book!
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    Feb 5 2013: That's interesting...so even in places with more money, kids and teens are facing some of the same problems in school. I guess that means that there is some more fundamental problems with American education than just a lack of funding. I think Michelle's question below kinda hints at this...
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    Feb 5 2013: The similarities are actually more shocking than the differences. Their interests may be different (skateboarding vs. hunting, for example), but the things they are dealing with in their lives, their challenges, their brilliance, and their history of school not serving them well enough, has been constant. Each student is different of course, and I have loved getting to know them all as people. The reason it's so tough to standardize Studio H is because we want to always be nimble enough to respond to each student and the dreams and challenges they bring to our class.
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    Feb 5 2013: That's a wonderful project. How is it different teaching liberal kids in Berkeley and the kids in Bertie? Different kinds of challenges, I bet!
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    Feb 5 2013: We have since moved our program to REALM Charter School in Berkeley, CA. We taught two full years in Bertie and a total of 26 graduated from our program. In Berkeley, the heart and soul of Studio H remains the same: we design and build projects that students initiate, based on the context of the place and people. So we may not be building a farmers market, because Berkeley has plenty of those, but one need our students identified at REALM was the shortage of space. We only have 8 classrooms and need 9. So they said "let's build it ourselves." We are in the process of building an 800-square-foot space on school grounds for our school community, because as one student said so eloquently, "the first community we belong to is our school community." We also just finished concrete public furniture, and individual hand-holds for a rock climbing wall. We may take on a skate park and skateboard-building lab next!
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    Feb 5 2013: Tell us what you're doing now, and how did your experience in Bertie influence your current curriculum?
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    Feb 5 2013: A good number of them did enroll in a 2- or 4-year college program, which is awesome. Most of those students are the first in their families to go to college. Kerron is at NC State studying computer engineering. Stevie, who was instrumental in the final design of the farmers market, is also at NC State studying agriculture. Others are employed locally. I still talk to many of them and miss them all. Recently one of my students posted a page of his Studio H sketchbook on Facebook - it was amazing to see where we started, and how far they have come, and how we've all been changed because of the year we spent together.
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    Feb 5 2013: What are some of the students you met in Bertie doing now?
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    Feb 5 2013: Vocational education has historically been, as it name would imply, about vocation. It's about skills that lead to employment. Design is about skills, but also about learning how to think and create. If vocational education is learning carpentry skills so you can build a birdhouse, design-based education (like Studio H) is surveying the local birds, thinking about their habitats, designing a birdhouse that will best accommodate their habitats, learning an array of skills (maybe carpentry, but maybe also welding or 3d-design, CNC and laser-cut fabrication) to build it, and then putting it out into the world for that local bird to use, and for people to learn about it.
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    Feb 5 2013: I know that you consider your program very different from traditional vocational education? How do you differentiate it from "shop class?" I guess what I mean, is what do you think the problems are in this with vocational education or attitudes towards it?
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    Feb 5 2013: Once the end of the school year came around, we were exhausted. But we were ready to build. We hit the construction site ready to go, having thought through all the processes of how we would build things, in what order, which tools we would need, which materials to procure at different times. A lot of design is about foresight.
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    Feb 5 2013: Then we present it publicly. We put everything up in a downtown building and invited everyone to come and give us feedback. From there, the hard work began - putting these beautiful crazy ideas through the filters of real-life construction. The zoning, the ADA codes, the fact that we had only 3 months to build the structure with a construction crew of teenagers and limited budget. We rely on critiques and constant prototyping to arrive at a set of working construction documents that could be approved by the building inspector.
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    Feb 5 2013: From there, we just start purging ideas. The more the better, the crazier the better. We get it all out on the table in sketch models and drawing, and then we sift through it - we co-critique each other. We tear things in half and put them back together with other models.
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    Feb 5 2013: We always begin a design project with a precedent study: in this case, students looked at pavilions that were open-air and in some way inspiring as architectural examples. They had to understand the building inside and out so that they could take away lessons that would inform their own design. For example: structure, circulation, ventilation, siting, vernacular material, etc.
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    Feb 5 2013: The farmer's market was a huge success, right? But ultimately you ran into trouble in Bertie...with out giving away too much of the book's ending, tell us what challenges you faced?
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    Feb 5 2013: Thanks for having this conversation Emily! I'm currently working on bringing a city-as-a-school model to communities around the nation.

    I'd love to hear more about how you used resources and opportunities in the community for children to learn from.

    In addition, today, schools largely resemble prisons. What are the best design principles to transform schools to more open and accessible?
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    Feb 5 2013: As for the in-class assignment, we provided a design brief once we knew it would be a farmers market - based on local zoning, as well as the desires of the town: x number of square feet, x number of vendor stalls, building above base flood elevation level because we were in a flood zone, certain height and structural requirements in a hurricane zone, budget, timeframe, etc. These constraints dictated the design process.
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    Feb 5 2013: With the farmers market, we first had to identify that the project was a farmers market. That process of research and need-finding came from the students, the mayor, our neighbors, etc. Students had to survey their friends and families, ask questions about the place they call home, and identify things they saw as necessary or that would be transformative for the community. The mayor and town councilmen were crucial parts of that conversation, as they were our strategic partners in building the farmers market and allocating the land to do so.
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    Feb 5 2013: Can you give a more specific example of a project? Like how did this apply the farmer's market project you write about in the book?
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    Feb 5 2013: We did a long-span bridge-building competition that built structural skills, but we also do graphic designs for cornhole boards, or a "who can design the craziest chicken coop" project. I think the element of surprise and spectacle is key - it keeps students thinking, always productively uncomfortable. That process of inquiry is crucial - we are always asking "why" over and over again. Our students got sick of hearing us say, "Why did you do that?" or "Why did you make that decision?"
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    Feb 5 2013: The funny thing is that we aren't great at writing and leading "assignments." We usually have a project that we try to break down into week-long segments, or we just organically roll through it the way my partner Matt and I learned to work in architecture school. The best assignments we have done, though, have both individual and collaborative components, a non-linear process, and always, ALWAYS, a really cool end product.
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    Feb 5 2013: Tell us about some of the assignments that have worked best?
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    Feb 5 2013: I think the word "design" can be intimidating in the first place. It means very little to a 16-year old. And if it does, it's usually something fancy, something out of reach, something esoteric. So I think the accessibility comes first through doing - by putting a new tool in someone's hand and letting them explore with it. Then we get critical and hone those products into something amazing. Design for me is just rigorous creativity coupled with gritty building. We might call it design, but for students, I think it just means having the permission to be creative, and the tools to make things real.
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    Feb 5 2013: Fascinating! What do you think it is about Project H that makes design less intimidating? Maybe you could tell us through an example of a project.
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    Feb 5 2013: And I think for Kerron, too, who wanted to be an engineer but didn't exactly know what that meant, it was a way to better understand his own abilities. And to not have to learn in such a linear way, where you are assigned part of a textbook, you do the assignment, take a test, and get a grade. In Studio H, Kerron built 20 models of a chicken coop and then had to communicate in many different media how his idea came to life and why it was powerful.
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    Feb 5 2013: How do you think Studio H will help spark community change in other places? How do you scale this project?
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    Feb 5 2013: Part of that is just the power of design - it is visible and it is difficult. For someone like Kerron, it really lights you up. It gives you the permission and possibility and power to pick up a welder for the first time, fumble through using it the first ten times, and then do something awesome.
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    Feb 5 2013: I saw in Kerron the same kind of curiosity and vulnerability that I feel like I had as a student. He so wanted to learn how to do all these amazing things. And he had this untapped brilliance. I think for a student like Kerron, Studio H was an environment that was safe, and that said to him: "You can fail. You can experiment. You can do whatever you want to do. You can make the things you want to make."
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    Feb 5 2013: You ended up telling the story through one of your students' experience...why did you pick Kerron?
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    Feb 5 2013: Over the next year, we did about 7 other projects with him. Our curriculum, Studio H, emerged out of a desire to expand on our involvement within the classroom. To teach design as a resource and form of capital, rather than something that we were delivering to the school district. We wanted to work with students and give them the design tools to make their own visions real, rather than being merely creative consultants.
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    Feb 5 2013: Hi Rachel!
    Thanks for hosting. I made my way to Bertie County on the invitation of a visionary superintendent, Dr. Chip Zullinger. He had originally reached out to Project H to come down to Bertie to build some of our Learning Landscape educational playgrounds. We obliged, and when we arrived, discovered in him a kindred spirit who believed in the value of design within public education.
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    Feb 5 2013: Hello all, and welcome to this live Q&A with author Emily Pilloton

    Emily, thank you for joining us!

    Your book, Tell Them I Built This: Transforming Schools, Communities, and Lives with Design-Based Education, tells the story of your move to Bertie County to launch Project H, your design-build curriculum. To start off, I want to ask you how you started Project H, and how you found your way to Bertie, one of the poorest counties in the US?
  • Feb 2 2013: Since people vary what works for one may not work for someone else.