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Design Thinking Sparks Learning in Rural N. Carolina

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There's so much fraught discussion over education reform, but at times, it all seems to become circular, undefinable, inconclusive.

Enter 28-year-old Emily Pilloton. The founder of Project H Design has harnessed her considerable talents as a designer to tackle the struggling public education system of Bertie County, North Carolina, a rural community with a population of 20,000, a third of whom live in poverty. When she embarked on the ambitious project last year, only 27% of third-through-eighth graders were passing state standards in reading and math.

At the behest of the school's superintendent, Dr. Chip Zullinger, Pilloton and her partner Matt Miller, moved to Bertie County to apply their design principles to repair the ailing school district and struggling community.

Emily and Matt

With their motto to "design with, not for," the couple's mission was to use education as a vehicle to inject what she calls "creative capital" towards community development -- not just resulting in new computer labs, playgrounds, and classes, but a way to galvanize the community through the school system.

They landed on three approaches that converge at the intersection of design and education:


1) Design for Education. Dealing with the actual physical instruction spaces and materials. They renovated old computer labs, which had students facing blank walls to take test after "drill-and-kill" test, and transformed those into creative, engaging spaces that encouraged communication and collaboration. They also created spaces for teachers to actually teach in the labs.

Outside in the playground, they built a Learning Landscape, where students learned math through game play and activity on outdoor equipment. Students not only achieved higher scores, but many were motivated to tackle problems they would not have in the classroom, and teachers were able to use those activities as part of student assessment.

2) Redesigning Education. Working on a systems level on how and to whom education is being offered  and creating conditions under which change is possible.

To that end, they created a community-wide campaign called Connect Bertie. The goal was to put a desktop computer and broadband access the home of every student in the public education system in a community where there are scant few wireless public access spots. In the town, only 10% have in-home broadband connection.

The idea here is to find a way that the school system can become a catalyst to change in the community outside school walls, and play a role in the community's development. The first batch of computers was installed last summer.

3) Design as Education. To teach design thinking as part of the curriculum within the public school system, in conjunction with real product design and building skills, and apply it toward the tangible needs of the community.

"This type of design offers an antidote to boring, rigid verbal instruction that most school districts are plagued by," Pilloton says. "It's hands on, in your face and requires active engagement that applies core subject learning in real ways."

With the disappearance of the legacy shop class, which focused on projects like "making birdhouse for Mom for Christmas," Pilloton's idea was to bring it back with a more relevant, community-oriented spin. So she and Matt became certified teachers and created a one-year curriculum for high school juniors.

The class: two semesters, three hours a day every day, which requires that students conduct ethnographic research in the field, define the community's needs, visualize design that works, and build prototypes in the 4,500 square foot studio. Next summer, Studio H will pay them to build their projects: an open-air farmer's market downtown, bus shelters, and home improvements for the elderly.

As she describes it: "The classroom is now the building that may well become the future farmers' market, their homework assignment is going out in the community to interview neighbors about what food they buy and why, and the ribbon-cutting is the final exam."

It's precisely this type of creative thinking that should be applied to education reform: Defining one problem at a time, involving the most important stakeholders in the process, and using sound ideas to push for progress.

Can this model be scaled to other rural communities? Pilloton certainly thinks so. As she puts it, "Ultimately design is a process of constant education."

Pilloton walks through all this and much more in her inspiring TED Talk below, which I recommend watching in complete. But there's a lot more to their work that's worth looking over in more detail on the Studio H website.