Report from NEDS

This past Saturday, my school played host and founder of the first annual New England Design Symposium.  Three teams of middle schoolers showed up at 9am for a chance at a fabulous wooden plaque (designed by yours truly) and bragging rights.

You’ll want to come next year.  Really.  All the cool schools are doing it.  (Video explaining the challenge here.  And the materials they had, here)

But first you’ll want to know what the Symposium is about. Of course. In essence, we had each team explain a problem at their school.  One team photographed and described the parking lot at their school — how it was a poor entryway for their school’s campus, how it caused traffic to back up, how it didn’t provide adequate parking, and how it damaged the school’s prized beech tree.  Another team collected reports and photographs of the playground used by the pre-K, K and 1st graders; they showed that it was not physically arranged to accommodate the kind of play those kids did, and that it was also not as safe as it could be.  The third team brought a corridor in their school — one that over the next four years would transform into a high school for their rising eighth graders, and effectively double the number of students in their school.  How were they going to do that?

At 9am on Saturday, we handed off the statement of the problems to each team.  The team that had discovered that the playground was not perfect took on the challenge of designing a high school.  The team that asked how do we build a high school? had to redesign a parking lot.  The team that asked how do we redesign our parking lot? tried to redesign a playground.

You’d think, with a challenge of this sort, that they’d just slap together a solution in 15 minutes, say it took them an hour, and be done with it.  But there were five judges circulating the room.  None of them were middle school teachers:  one was a university professor.  One was an industrial designer.  Two were landscape architects.  One was a master arborist.  Each of those judges brought something to the teams’ discussions that they wouldn’t have known before.   Each of those judges asked difficult questions, and as a consequence kids scrambled from 9 am to 11:00 am to answer them.

And then they built three-dimensional models of their solutions.  They built trees out of pipe cleaners. They sculpted parking lot cars out of Sculpey.  They built swing sets out of pipe cleaners. They showed where and how to build a theater to serve the high school out of card stock and staples.  They built a first draft of the high school layout out of Post-It® Notes, and when that wasn’t adequate, they built a gymnasium floor out of wooden popsicle sticks.

And then, in front of an audience of dozens of adults, and five suddenly very-serious judges, they presented their models.  They explained their designed solutions on the fly, extemporaneously, shifting from one team member to another fluidly, answering questions from audience members and judges, and even from possible clients (that high school is going to get built next year, regardless of whether they use this design… that parking lot still has to have its traffic flow fixed… that playground is still not satisfying the little ones).

And one team walked away with the plaque.  Two other teams were left wondering, why not us? Our ideas were great. 

And their ideas were great.  They showed they were capable of  critical thinking.  Problem solving.  Presentation.  Design.  Teamwork.  Self management.  Careful planning.  Construction.  Budgeting (did I mention that each team had to present a rough cost of their plan?).  Google Fu (each team had one computer with a tricky internet connection… how much does 100 square feet of pavement cost, anyway? How much does it cost to cut down a tree? How much does a swing set cost, and how long will it last). Resilience.

Those are the skills you want your kids to develop, right?

So how about it?  Will you join me at the 2nd annual NEDS in 2012-13?  Bring five middle schoolers from New England, and a problem you want to solve.  The winning is more than just a trophy.  It’s a mindset of success.

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