Carmen Dukes, Katie Koch
When did you first learn about design?
Our students start learning about design in ninth grade, during their first year in high school. As members of Project: Interaction, a 10-week high school after-school program in Brooklyn, New York, they are introduced to the practice of interaction design. They learn how experiences with technology, people, and things are researched, prototyped, and designed. And at the end of the program, they create a finished interaction design project borne of their own ideas.
Before we founded Project: Interaction, we were classmates at the School of Visual Arts MFA in Interaction Design program. We immediately connected through the idea that practicing and thinking about design can be a significant catalyst in young people’s development as students and later as professionals, regardless of their chosen career path. We also believe that students who learn interaction design will be able to apply the same thinking strategies in their other course work, stretching the limits of their abilities to learn and create new ideas.
When we started talking to educators about our thinking, we learned that many students don’t have time in their schedules for an art or design class, and most schools don’t have the resources to facilitate one. It was easy for us to see the need for design education in schools, and we began to wonder if interaction design could be a creative complement to a student’s standard high school curriculum. To us, that need was a design problem.
Designing the Experience
We began shaping our project with the goal of understanding what high school is like from the perspective of students, parents, and teachers. We visited high schools, conducting observations and interviews to help inform how we could develop an interaction design curriculum and gain the high school administration’s support to teach it.
From our research, we knew that students would need to be intrinsically motivated to become actively engaged in class. High school students want to connect to the material and to each other. We designed Project: Interaction as an after-school program that teaches high school students how to use design to change their communities. Connecting the students to their communityinside the school and outside of itmade the program and the concepts we wanted to teach tangible in a way that was not possible via design books.
Approaching the design of Project: Interaction as an interaction design problem allowed us to focus every aspect of the experience on our usershigh school students. And as we began to synthesize our research, we developed a few core questions to address in our curriculum that would help us ensure our project was human-centered:
- What components of the program will make it a compelling experience for students?
- What are the goals and methods for each phase of engagement, and how do we relate them to students’ experiences?
- How would the students’ learning change and grow over time?
We mapped the class as a service, using Shelley Evenson’s Experience Cycle  as a model to help broadly define this experience for high school students.
With this basic rhythm established, we began filling in the blanks, attempting to understand the interaction through the eyes of a high school student. What would the student want to learn? How could we connect interaction design to the things that are important to a high school student? What is the most accessible frame of reference from which to scaffold her understanding? All of these questions helped us outline the details of our program.
We first wanted to introduce students to creative habits that may be missing from their daily classes. We wanted to give students more time for creative thinking, to provide opportunities for sketching, and to expose them to exercises that encourage creativity.
We also wanted students to think and behave with empathy, an important trait to have as a designer. To be successful at designing products people will want to use, designers must be able to put themselves in the user’s place and understand their challenges and pain points. We think empathy is an important quality for a successful high school student, too.
Finally, we wanted students to have an understanding of storytelling and presentation. We wanted them to leave our class with a point of view about their work and be able to share the projects they created in a way that is meaningful to others.
With this focus in mind, we knew it would be important to find the right students to teach. In our first two semesters, we worked in partnership with a wonderful high school in Brooklyn: the Urban Assembly Institute of Math and Science for Young Women (or just UAI). It has been an enthusiastic partner that understands the value of design in education and embraces our ideology.
Our school provides students in grades 6 to 12 with a rigorous math and science curriculum along with extracurricular activities in technology and engineering. Students are encouraged to explore and pursue careers in these areas through partnerships with nearby universities, internships, and mentor relationships.
The blend of math and sciences combined with design is an exciting proposition for us. The methods that lead to new discoveries in science and technology are very similar to the methodologies that designers employ to create new products and services. By learning research, observation, brainstorming, sketching, and prototyping through a design lens, students gain additional skills that complement their learning in math and science.
To keep our classes active and fast-paced, all of our lessons begin with a quick five- to 10-minute introduction, followed by a hands-on individual or group activity. Each week’s activities present new ideas and concepts to keep students eager to try something new.
Our program began with an introduction to design and a few of the skills we dubbed “habits of good designers”brainstorming, sketching, and observation. To teach brainstorming and sketching, we asked them to quickly create Post-it-size sketches representing abstract words like “social” and “community.” The activity was inspired by Graphic Jam, an idea from the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. The girls were reluctant to show their drawing skills at first but were racing to post their ideas after a few tries. To teach observation skills, we took them outside of the classroom to quietly observe the people and environment near the school. They were shocked to discover all the details they missed before they were really paying attention.
With a foundation of habits established, we introduced more specific topics in interaction design, focusing on service design, mobile technology, and coming up with “big ideas” to solve complex problems. One of our favorite activities was the mobile lesson, in which students had to act out a scenario of information- or way-finding using technology from 1990, 2010, or 2030. It was a real challenge for them to imagine a world without the Internet and equally as exciting for them to dream up a world beyond the technology we have today.
The students finished the course by completing a final, team-based project that showed off everything they had learned. In our first year, students chose to focus on designing the classroom of the future. They worked together to define a problem and brainstorm solutions, carefully editing their ideas to find one viable concept. They then articulated the concept through a series of sketches, system maps, and prototypes. For us, the project’s success lay in their ability to tell a story around their work.
Opportunities for Reflection and Delight
We found that reflection was missing from the students’ learning process, so we designed the curriculum of Project: Interaction to include reflection at the end of each lesson. This period of processing and reflection enables students to benefit from others who may have had different interpretations or opinions about the same experience. The diversity of thought and reactions that arise during facilitated reflection helps students connect the newly molded pieces of what each person has absorbed from the class.
In addition to designing for reflection, we also designed the class to include moments of personal delight and surprise, focusing on three key areas: variety of teaching methods, encouraging individual creativity, and rewarding behavior that exhibits “habits of good designers.”
All students learn differently, and it was important for us to teach class in ways that appealed to all of the senses to which we had access: sight, sound, and touch. Some classes revolved around sketching; other class activities incorporated learning tools such as acting, timed exercises, and rapid prototyping. We offered a balance of team projects and individual work.
Moleskine donated sketchbooks to our class, and we encouraged our students to personalize them in any way they wished. During each week of Project: Interaction, students were invited to share their sketches. Students offered poems, drawings, photographs, game ideas, schoolwork, and more. Sketchbook sharing became a platform for creative expression and personal reflection, which we suspect that students may have lacked in their other classes.
During each class, we encouraged our students to sketch, to collaborate on ideas, to be curious, and to not fear failure. Students were rewarded with buttons each time they demonstrated one of the habits. Since design principles and methods often seem abstract, we reinforced lessons with a physical representation of the things they learned. The buttons were the perfect reward for high school students, who proudly displayed them on their bookbags and clothing.
Successes and Failures
We approached each class as a prototype, with the expectation that we could iterate on our curriculum over time as the students interacted with our plans.
Our curriculum was most successful when our students were allowed and encouraged to demonstrate their creative ideas through sketchbooks, rapid brainstorming, and even group work, where they could showcase their best strengths and abilities.
When we created our curriculum, we thought the students would find it easy to connect to their broader New York City community. After a few weeks in class, we discovered that their idea of community was much smaller than we had anticipated. They had trouble relating to the big city since, as teens, they didn’t feel any ownership of the city.
In response to their needs, we shifted the focus of our second-year program to a hyperlocal community project. Students worked with their school’s after-school nonprofit to design a website, all while employing principles of interaction design and the “habits of good designers” in their work.
Adding a service-oriented curriculum was a success. From the first class, students were engaged and invested in the class’s outcome, as it was so closely related to their experiences as students.
A Framework for Learning
As our classes progressed, we began to formulate a framework for how students acquire complexity in thought and abilities by learning interaction design. We imagined the learning process as a progressive cycle focused around risk taking as a form of learning. A student is exposed to something new each time she takes a risk through hands-on design activities and projects. Everything she learns from this new experience is reinforced through self-reflection and awareness as concepts are absorbed. At the end of the cycle, the student is able to demonstrate what she’s learned. The teacher’s role is to challenge the student and foster new risk taking to keep pushing the spiral forward. In Project: Interaction, learning is compounded over time. As students continue through this cycle, we see an increase in complex thought as it relates to design.
We didn’t think it was necessary to give tests or grade projects, but we wanted to solicit feedback from our students so we could improve the next iteration of Project: Interaction.
We collected data in an in-class survey and asked each student to fill one Post-it note for each of four headings: “Liked,” “Didn’t like,” “I learned…” and “I want more of.” We reduced the barrier to entry to communicating their thoughts and made it easy for them to give open, honest feedback. In return, we received a good variety of responses.
Our students loved the active elements of our class, such as sharing ideas, taking field trips, and hearing from guest speakers. They disliked passive, rote tasks, such as filling in worksheets and focusing on subject matter they were not interested in. (And we agreed!) Overall they wanted more prototyping and sketching experiences. We have used this in-class survey tactic in subsequent classes and found it to be an engaging substitute for a traditional survey.
We also collected feedback in a formal, written response. We asked each student to anonymously submit her favorite part of class. Again, we received quality, candid answers about the class. Many students felt strongly about the ability to create new ideas in a risk-free environment, and each student confirmed how much they loved sketching and communicating ideas.
Our students’ qualitative feedback will have a strong impact on the design of our future programs. One of the greatest indicators of our successful approach was quantitative: Every week we had a consistent number of students attend our class, a trend that stands out compared with most programs at our school that lose attendance as the semester progresses. As teachers, we were delighted to see students bringing their friends to our class, a peer-driven action we believe validates our classroom approach.
We feel fortunate to be able to share one afternoon a week with high school students. They are passionate, ambitious, and creative in completely unexpected ways.
More important, we learned how challenging it is to develop an educational philosophy and communicate our knowledge to a group of young people. We have the utmost respect for teachers who dedicate themselves to this work every day.
As we studied other teachers and our own behavior in the classroom, we realized that there are important similarities between teaching and designing. Both require smart planning, clear communication, and a complete understanding of the users involved.
We look forward to working closely with high school teachers in future iterations of Project: Interaction. The bridge between standard curriculum and a complementary design class is essential. We hope our success in teaching interaction design can find its way into any classroom.
Carmen Dukes works as Director of Digital Features at NFL.com. She holds an M.F.A. in interaction design from the School of Visual Arts and a B.A. in film and media arts from Temple University. During her time at SVA, she cofounded Project: Interaction with Katie Koch.
Katie Koch leads the user experience team at Coursekit, a New York City start-up that is creating a new social platform for learning. She’s one of the inaugural graduates of the MFA in Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts, cofounder of Project: Interaction, and an adjunct faculty member in the undergraduate Design and Technology department at Parsons.
Sidebar: Project: Interaction Year 1 Curriculum
Week 1: What Is Design? What is interaction? Our first class centered around defining the concepts of design and interaction. From iPods to MetroCards, we discussed how design affects everything we touch and experience every day. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the girls had a pretty good understanding of the idea of interaction. They could name all of the feedback mechanisms on an NYC MTA turnstile and quickly grasped the action-reaction feedback loop.
Week 2: Brainstorming and Sketching Looking for a fun way to brainstorm, we decided to adapt a game called Graphic Jam from the book Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo. The game challenges participants to visualize words that often seem too abstract to imagine in a tangible way. Participants have two minutes to sketch as many ideas as they can to represent the chosen word.
Week 3: Field Research The focus of week 3 was observation. We wanted to teach our students the difference between their memory of a place and how it actually exists. We started a conversation about the street outside the school, asking them what kinds of things they see there each day. They shouted out the answers we expected: “Trees! Buildings! Crazy people!” We led them downstairs to the street, armed with a set of open-ended questions to guide their observations.
Week 4: Field Trip! We left the classroom and entered the design studio. Thirteen students from Project: Interaction visited R/GA to learn about what it is like to work on design projects outside of school. We heard from five amazing and inspiring women interaction designers, copywriters, and visual designers.
Week 5: Mobile Technology How would you have learned about the delicate art of egg boiling in 1990? Called your mom? Looked in a cookbook? (Gasp!) And what about 20 years from now? How will our ability to find information change in just two decades? This week was about the impact of mobile technology on the ways we find people and information. Students acted out a series of scenarios in each of three different technological points in history: 1990, 2010, and 2030.
Week 6: Solving Big Problems By week 6, we focused on future thinking and the dissection of big ideas. We wanted to encourage the students to think bigger than themselves and address tough problems that at first appear too big to solve. We took on transportation, challenging the girls to create solutions to tackle boredom while waiting for a bus or train.
Week 7: Interviewing and Storytelling During the beginning weeks of Project: Interaction, we experimented with ways for the girls to get to know one another. Since we had a mix of ninth and tenth graders, it was likely the girls did not have classes together throughout the day. We randomly paired the girls up and asked them to interview each other using a set of five questions: If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it? What’s the most embarrassing thing that happened to you at school? What do you want to study in college? If you had a superhero power, what would it be? Name your most recent act of kindness. We then asked them to choose the most interesting response and tell a story about it. We encouraged them to tell stories in different ways, and they met our challenge! One student performed a skit, a few drew a comic strip about their story, and one student wrote her story.
Week 8: A Visit from Transportation Alternatives We welcomed Julia de Martini Day from New York City advocacy group Transportation Alternatives to give a presentation about safe streets and what it means to engage in healthy living in an urban area. Students reimagined what a nearby city street would be like with more bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and more greenery.
Weeks 9 and 10: Design Challenge In our final two classes, students tackled the Classroom of the Future. We led them through a rapid design process to identify problems that exist in the classroom and challenged them to develop creative solutions to make the learning experience better for both teachers and students.
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