I’m trying to remember, did I ever think about things like public design, civic planning, or product innovation in the eighth grade? I’ll be honest, the eighth grade wasn’t all that long ago. I know that in language arts we mapped sentences; we learned about Julius Caesar’s murderous frenemies in Latin class. But the real-world work of designers–isolating problems, then drafting, tweaking and prototyping solutions–I don’t remember that being part of our curriculum. Lately, however, design practice, with its inherent capacity for invention, community engagement and change, is finding new relevance in K-12 classrooms.
Young designers are encouraged by institutions to participate in solving social and environmental problems. The Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and Ford Motor Co. Fund, for instance announced, just last week, the winners of their Community Design Competition. The competition challenged students to locate opportunities for improvement within their communities, and then brainstorm solutions. Open to schools in Miami, Chicago, San Antonio and San Diego, the competition is part of the Smithsonian and Cooper-Hewitt’s ongoing promotion of design as valuable, educative practice for young people. The entries attest to the creativity, enthusiasm, and thoughtfulness with which the students approached their communities’ needs.
First-place glory and $5,000 was awarded to the Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School of Art + Design in San Antonio. The 9th-grade students designed a backpack specifically tailored to the needs of the homeless, inspired by their neighbors at the Haven 4 Hope Transition Shelter only a block from their school.
The second-place winners, four 8th-graders from Shenandoah Middle School Museums Magnet School in Miami, were awarded $3,000 for their Pet Waste Station design, which addressed the endlessly distressing issue of doggy-doo that had been plaguing the sidewalks outside their school. They installed both waste bins and signs to alert their neighbors of the renewed clean-up policy, learning about both product design and local sign-posting bylaws in one fell swoop.
Third place, a prize of $1,000, was awarded to the entire K-8 student body of Andrew Jackson Language Academy in Chicago. Their design, for a Kinder-Garden Memorial to honor a kindergarten teacher who passed away, bravely explored the ever-challenging arena of monuments and memorials – how do you design something at once personal and relevant to hundreds of people? The kids designed a mosaic tile garden illustrating various aspects of science and nature taught by their late teacher.
The Community Design Competition and the recent enthusiasm for design in the classroom (see the student designers featured at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair last month) are both inspiring and hopeful. And right on time!
I’ve been thinking lately that the hyper-anxious doomsayings about children, their futures and education, has become a tiring refrain. The complaints can seem endless, and are constantly refreshed to include the latest evil of the modern world. Thanks to the Kindle, kids will never hold real books in their hands. They’ll lose their ability to converse in full sentences, thanks to texting and tweeting.
The modern world can only bring corruption and chaos to our future generations! Not so. With design in the classroom, kids are participating in one of the most forward thinking, helpful practices of our Kindle-reading world. They’re thinking critically about their communities, anticipating needs, and inventing solutions – not stumbling illiterately into the abyss, unequipped for the challenges of the advancing world around them. This young generation is ahead of the game. Doomsayers, just be patient. They haven’t even gotten to high school.
Alice Heinz is an MA candidate at Bard Graduate Center in New York City, studying design history, decorative arts and material culture. With a background in art history, she relishes the opportunity to study more contemporary design, architecture and urban planning.