Designing a new way for middle schoolers to learn

November 10, 2017

Matt Howe’s classroom at Oak-Land Middle School is alive with activity during third and fifth hour each day. Small groups of students are working together; some on computers, others at whiteboards, and still others around a workbench or at a 3D printer.  Each group is doing something different, though their goal is common; to create a project that solves a defined problem. It’s noisy, and might feel a bit chaotic, but if you ask the students they’ll tell you the Design and Make class is one of the best parts of their day.

“It’s a really great class,” said Spencer Mau, an eighth grader. “The best thing is that it encourages creativity and really works your mind.”

Design and Make is a unique elective course developed as part of the new middle school program. It allows students the opportunity to work in a hands-on environment where they can take their ideas and make them into reality. It is based on the design process used by engineers and other professionals charged with creating new innovations. Students collaborate in small groups to define a problem, brainstorm solutions, research, develop ideas, and reach consensus on the best idea to move forward. From there they use computer software and physical materials to build a model or prototype. They test and evaluate their model, improve the design, and ultimately present their results to the rest of their class. Students create a variety of projects - from key chains and fidget spinners to robotics. For one project, students even used 3D and virtual reality software to design their ultimate bedrooms.

“It’s fun and you have a lot of freedom to do what you like to do,” said Will Barwick.

Beyond being an engaging and fun class, Howe believes the Design and Make philosophy provides students with opportunities to develop higher-level thinking skills. Students aren’t just graded on the end product, but are being evaluated on how they work through each step of the design process - both individually and as part of a team.

“It’s a switch for most of our students who are used to handing in a project and getting graded on its merit,” Howe said. “I’m really looking at how they worked together as a team, how they handled failure, and how they were able to learn from their mistakes. These are the real-world skills that will help them succeed in the future.”

While the Design and Make course is the first of its kind in our middle schools, school leaders hope to embed the principles of the design process into more classes in the future. From English and social studies to math and science, the skills used in the design process help keep students engaged in their learning while preparing them for future careers.

“Teaching students the Design Thinking process is about them learning to identify with the conditions of a problem in order to create progressively more effective solutions,” said John Perry, director of learning technology and systems design.  “It moves classrooms beyond having students select the correct answer and challenges our kids to change the world.”