As a fly on the wall in a high school Design class, I was filled with longing. How many of us had or will have the opportunity to construct something complex under the mentorship of an experienced pro – during school hours?
THE STORY: Tom started by giving his class a sense of what is possible. The final project of the year would be to build a longboard, a variation on what we commonly know as a skateboard. Watershed School students in Tom’s class meet twice a week for an hour and a half, working on a project over multiple months. During the last weeks of school, a time when most kids have long stopped focusing or putting their hearts and heads into schoolwork, these students were riveted.
Tom clearly conveys the passion he feels for industrial design. An artist and an expert in his field, and thinking big, he chose a concept that would resonate with students for their final project. The class was on board from the outset.”We had to design everything from scratch,” a junior told me.
Watershed School students learn to apply skills across subject areas, and having worked with engineering concepts and assorted tools in the first half of the year, they were primed for what seemed to me advanced product design and construction. Their first step was to research longboards on the web and consider ways in which they might be used. “Tom, should I make my longboard a certain shape for aesthetic or functional reasons?” one student queried. With the initial sketch completed, each student shaped and glued seven layers of plywood, which were ultimately compressed into one solid form. Measuring, checking calculations, and assessing their boards at each stage, they also shared strategies. “In the end they may be a little bit off. But we want to have some references,” Tom reassured them. This was serious business, with extended periods of time allotted for thinking and modifications. “I literally put at least three hours into sanding this,” one student told me. Craftsmanship and patience are indeed key. “If you’re doing it right it’s going to feel like work,” Jonah Lehrer wrote in Imagination.
Building these boards was a long and complicated process. From the outset kids knew that on the surface of their board they were to create visual representations of themselves. Their longboards would not only be a a mode of getting from one place to another but a vehicle for conveying their personal vision.
This project, which required the application of advanced academic skills, from completing multiple calculations to understanding spatial relationships, offered far more profound opportunities for complex thinking. From the outset students were asked to think holistically. In the process of following a linear sequence of steps, they found themselves looking through new lenses. As the project evolved they began realizing connections between parts and whole. Pieces that first seemed unrelated became ideas that began to intersect. Over the course of weeks, they refined their thinking, gleaning a deeper understanding of how to get where they wanted to be.
If we invite students to design, work through unfamiliar problems, and dabble with enticing materials they will know how to think differently. Invested in a process that has meaning for them, they will imagine the possible and transform their ideas into something that just might be a magnificent surprise in the end.
My observations at Watershed confirmed my belief that we have no time to waste. It is up to us to give our high school students the time they need for discovery and innovative thinking if they are to invent a better future for us.
With gratitude to Tom, his students, and the Watershed School,
Nancy Harris Frohlich