Commonstudio + The New Learning Institute
The D3 Lab-Empowering Urban Middle Schoolers through Design
Nightingale Middle School in Los Angeles
The D3 Lab-Empowering Urban Middle Schoolers through Design
Powerful model of a student-centered, project-based learning program that is being developed and deployed in the Nightingale Middle School in East LA. This is an educational initiative that integrates core subject matters (math, science writing/reading) and utilizes design-based learning at its best– epitomized by “a creative mindset” captured by their motto: “Dream It–Design It–Do It.” This is a very positive, forward-looking program that can engage and empower young kids.
It is very compelling that this program, designed to grow out of students’ intrinsic interests, is also bringing much needed hands-on skills and experiential learning to kids in districts where these activities have been increasingly cut due to budget reductions.
The program is also very empowering for the opportunity it presents to teachers to get their core content across in a more immersive environment.
The D3 Lab-Empowering Urban Middle Schoolers through Design
The D3 Lab is a unique student-centered, project-based learning program currently being developed and deployed at Nightingale Middle School in East Los Angeles. The program utilizes design methodology to empower students to take charge of their own educational experiences through hands-on, real world projects. Working as designers, students address core subject matter including reading/writing, math, and science in a contextualized, situated manner. Projects grow out of students’ intrinsic interests and motivations and eventually into the world around them-creating impact in their school community and beyond.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Nightingale is facing many of the same contemporary challenges and existential threats affecting public schools nationwide.
Firstly-severe budget cuts continue to force schools to slash resources offered for all but core subjects such as Math and English. This means that many of the elective programs that students have traditionally relied on as outlets for creativity have recently had to close their doors. As these doors close, so do many opportunities to develop the very skills that are increasingly vital to the careers and challenges of the 21st century-capacities such as collaboration, critical thinking, and problem solving (all of which are in measurable decline in young people in America).
As funding, programs and public trust continue to fade, public schools have been losing students at a rapid pace due to competition with local charter schools which often promise students and their families a more engaging and personalized educational environment. This trend was palpable when we arrived at Nightingale, which has lost roughly half of its student population in the past decade to local charters.
In the face of these challenges, our question was immense but clear-What can be done to support alternative creative learning opportunities at Nightingale? How can we collaboratively develop new resources for teachers and students that begin to change the trajectory of the school and demonstrate its capacity as a vibrant and viable place to learn?3. The Intent: What point of view did you bring to the project, and were there additional criteria that you added to the brief?
We worked closely with our partner, The New Learning Institute, to offer new perspectives on how to approach the unique challenges and opportunities in a comprehensive and strategic way. The design process informed not only the ways in which the program was developed and deployed, but also the content and pedagogy of the program itself. We identified several criteria that became the basis of our approach to the D3 Lab. These included the following goals:
DON’T ADVOCATE, INTEGRATE:
We knew that Introducing new programming into the existing culture of the school would need to be strategic, transparent and eventually self-sufficient in the absence of outside facilitators. Students, teachers, and potential community partners would need to be empowered with flexible systems and tools that support effective communication and project development. All stakeholders will need to stay updated on what’s happening, why it matters, and how they can get involved.
We found many personality types among students at Nightingale. Finding ways to engage and accommodate this diversity was imperative.
THINK BEYOND SPACE:
We agreed that what was needed was more than just a physical space at the school. It would represent an approach to learning in which students explore their interests, work with adults to define and refine their project ideas based on proven design principles, and then implement their ideas in the school or larger community. Programming would take place during school, after school, in classrooms, in outdoor spaces, in the community, and in the D3 Lab itself.
The first phase of the process was an intensive eight weeks of ethnography and research in which we met with and learned from the Nightingale community-from students and teachers, to administrators, parents and local residents. In order to understand the needs, concerns and potential role of all stakeholders involved, we conducted interviews and activities that allowed us to actively listen to and carefully consider the diversity of perspectives they represent. This process also allowed us to experience and observe first hand some of the unique challenges of working with and instructing middle school students. We met with a group of 30 students twice a week to learn more about how they spend their time both on campus and off, their motivations, their aspirations, their feelings about their education, and their community. One example of this was an activity we called The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in which students used iphones as cameras to document and share their favorite and least favorite areas of the Nightingale campus. We also learned from relevant precedents, and identified a series of other spatial, pedagogical and motivational opportunities within the existing culture of the school. This process culminated in a comprehensive digital report that outlined a series of actionable strategies and approaches to move the program forward.
The next phase of the process included the physical transformation of the D3 Lab space. Room 243 was an approximately 1600 s.f. classroom formerly used as a computer lab. The challenge was to convert this traditional classroom environment into the physical creative context for the D3 Lab. Key considerations driving the transformation of the space included the question of how to provide an inclusive environment in which students felt comfortable, inspired, and engaged while being programmatically flexible enough to accommodate a variety of uses and projects at various times of the day. Changing the ingrained perception of the space (among students and faculty alike) as merely a computer lab was another major part of the challenge. Working with a $2000 budget, we were able to repurpose many of the existing features of the space and incorporate them into the final spatial solution, and students were involved at every stage of this eight week process. The space is now fully operational and includes a student run tool crib, an intimate “think tank” area for student brainstorming, a series of flexible work spaces and project storage, and an interactive community wall for tracking student projects. The D3 Lab is now actively used throughout the week by a growing cross-section of curious students and teachers.
The current phase of the program is focused on testing and refining the D3 Methodology in a series of live projects with students, teachers and community members. We are also beginning to develop a series of resources that will support the long term sustainability of the D3 Lab at Nightingale, and the replicability of the program into other schools in Los Angeles and beyond.5. The Value: How does your project earn its keep in the world? What is its value? What is its impact? (Social, educational, economic, paradigm-shifting, sustainable, environmental, cultural, gladdening, etc.)
Although the D3 Lab is still in a nascent stage, its impact is already starting to be felt on campus and in the community of Cypress Park. Utilizing the D3 Lab as a launching pad, we are currently testing the effectiveness of the methodology in a series of “Student Action Projects”. These projects range in scope and focus but are the direct result of students looking critically and creatively at how they can improve the Nightingale campus and community. Some students are working on improving their school uniforms, others are tackling the issue of litter on campus. Another example is the recent transformation of an underutilized area of the campus into a fully functional community garden space and outdoor classroom.
But more than merely a set of skills, techniques or projects, we believe the D3 Lab is a creative mindset that can benefit young adults through all stages of education and life. In contrast to the short term modes of assessment such as grades and standardized tests, the D3 Lab nurtures intrinsic motivations that can set a foundation for life-long learning beyond the classroom. This mindset focuses on the ability to think critically, research, experiment, and collaborate effectively to bring ideas to life that have positive impact on the world. Effective project-based learning will also reinforce the interests and goals students currently have while exposing them to a new range of creative career paths, role models, and options that can help them shape the visions they set for their future.6. Describe the overall philosophy that drove the design brief, research methodologies, tools and outcomes (e.g. self-defined or client-defined briefs, participatory briefs, process outcomes or artifacts outcomes, etc.).
Working in the context of a public school presented by far the most complex ecosystems we’ve ever faced as designers. From the very beginning, we confronted a multitude of personalities, expectations, logistical hurdles, and the myriad challenges of working within the LAUSD. Although the overall goals were defined from the outset by our partner The New Learning Institute and shared by Nightingale’s visionary principal, it was vital that the particular form of the D3 program grow organically from the existing culture of the school, the needs of the stakeholders, and interests of the students. This required a spirit of flexibility, patience and the ability to listen and facilitate.
Listening to students was key. They all have opinions and preferences. To create a model that works best for them, we knew that all content, criteria and methods would need to be be informed by direct feedback from students themselves. Understanding how they use technology, how they spend their time, and what’s important to them in the context of Nightingale as well as their lives outside of school is vital to maintaining their interest and participation.
We also knew that we needed to leverage local assets that are latent within the community of Nightingale and in Cypress Park. These included currently untapped facilities, resources, spaces and pools of human capital upon which to draw. We know that connecting with and harnessing these localized opportunities could lead to more relevant, locally resonant projects and contribute to the long term viability of the program.7. How did the project, program or curriculum improve the students’ learning objectives, the institution’s overall learning and teaching and/or beneficial impact to outside community or industry partner?
The classroom teacher usually approaches learning through objectives that demonstrate mastery of specific content standards. The D3 Lab compliments this approach by providing a space where students can apply content knowledge through solving challenges and designing solutions. From the initial spark of an idea, to the refinement of a concept, to the deployment of an appropriate response, the design process, and the creative mindset it entails is capable of empowering students to take charge of their own educational experiences and bring that excitement with them throughout the day.
The benefit that the D3 program provides to Nightingale is perhaps best expressed in the words of Enrique Gonzales, the school’s principal, who recently observed that “I have seen first hand, students who are several grade levels below, in this environment, jump up levels very quickly…when you watch the kids come in here and you watch their eyes light up with engagement-and they own this place, and they begin to respect this place, that’s priceless, that’s true learning.”