The Story of Design Lab

The Story of Design Lab!
A new and evolving middle school level course was developed to combine various creative disciplines and to support students in advancing their creative pursuits.
Our Story
Jean Fitzgerald and Anna Szymczak, teachers at a suburban Chicago middle school, wanted to find a way to expand their respective curricula. Jean Fitzgerald had taught Art and Digital Media courses (Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Ceramics, Photoshop, etc.)while Anna Szymczak had taught Food and Consumer Science courses (Cooking and Sewing).

It might be useful to use the Design Thinking Model to describe our story.
1. Empathize, 2. Define, 3. Ideate, 4. Prototype, 5. Test, and 6. Refine.

Students were not getting their 1st or 2nd choice elective courses due to scheduling constraints. Ms. Fitzgerald and Ms. Szymczak wanted to offer students more choices even if their schedules weren't allowing them to take their top elective courses. Students were not following their passions and missing opportunities to explore their interests. Teachers were trying to make a "one-size-fits-all" curriculum work for their students. No one is benefiting from the status quo! Everyone is disappointed and frustrated and not working to their full potential!

Students and teachers need time and space in the curriculum to explore topics and creative projects with more freedom and choice. Students need opportunities to problem solve and use real world skills such as critical thinking, persistence, cross-curricular connections, creative and hands-on application of knowledge, and real world feedback to their growing understanding and contributions to the world.

Jean: "Anna, your cooking courses are in high demand but we need to combine sewing into the middle school curriculum. Did you know that all freshman at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago are required to learn how to use to the sewing machine as a creative tool?"
<I repeat this in a principal's meeting later on...>
Middle School Principal: "That's fascinating. Sewing in the curriculum goes way back in our country's history in preparing students for the home and for the factory line. What can we do with this now?"
Jean: "Students can still benefit from sewing. It's not a strongly gendered activity as it may have been in previous generations. It's now another creative tool for 21st century thinking."
Anna: "So what can I do? My passion is cooking!"
Jean: "But if you can get 35 students to cook ratatouille without the school burning down, you can get students to do anything! You are amazing!"
Anna: "Haha, thanks. But what are we going to do?"
Jean: "Why don't we combine our courses? Like put sewing in the art room and artists in the kitchen or...I don't know..."
Anna: "Can we do that?"
Jean: "I don't know. Let's pitch it to admin!"

After a lot of meetings and the painful process of suggesting and implementing change...
Using ideas of Design Thinking, the philosophy of S.T.E.A.M. curriculum, and our respective background in our fields, we began our journey with our students to explore and create and
TEST and REFINE our ideas in the world.

So... how did students respond? The variety and innovation did not disappoint! What keeps teaching interesting is the unexpected discoveries made with students to go where no class has gone before! Students created shoe designs, digital urban planning in Sketchup software, new Allergy-sensitive food recipes, cell phone cases using 3D printing technology, to even a life-size cardboard canoe that floated! These projects used skills in photography, digital media, ceramics, cooking, sewing, various technology equipment, and the time, space, and teacher support to explore deeply and in a way not afforded elsewhere in students' education.

In our second semester, a team of teachers and administration outside our school district came to visit our Design Lab class in action. They were also searching for ways to address the challenges of elective courses in their middle school. They were in awe to see every student in our classroom focused and engaged in different projects and disciplines around the room! 

We welcome feedback on our prototype, this manifestation of our course, and encourage others to make their own prototypes wherever you are.