Bringing Design Education to K-12 Students

MIT undergraduates and design educator Rosa Weinberg are exploring ways to expand access to design education for K-12 students. With the support of the MIT Morningside Academy for Design (MAD) and the MIT Museum, they have been prototyping and testing engaging “bite-sized” learning experiences for the general public, families and school groups.

By Adelaide Zollinger

Apr 21, 2023

Design is a powerful problem-solving methodology that engages research and analysis, flexibility of thinking, presentation techniques, feedback, and a whole array of creative skills. Because of its comprehensive and practical nature, design education is a valuable asset for educators and students of all ages, and can be applied to a variety of fields. Rosa Weinberg, an inspiring designer, design educator, and researcher, leads the MIT Morningside Academy for Design’s K-12 outreach and activities to introduce children and teenagers to the world of design.

At the college and graduate levels, design is typically taught in 3-5 hour blocks, called studios. While many K-12 schools are experimenting with incorporating design and design thinking into their curricula, subject matter expectations, testing, and other time constraints often present barriers for schools. Informal learning environments like the MIT Museum's exploratory drop-in activities, and more structured workshops for school groups, provide opportunities for families, students, and teachers alike to explore the range of possibilities. This makes the MIT Museum's Maker Hub and workshop experiences the ideal playground for experimentation.

If we want to expose more students — high school or middle school students — to design, we have to figure out ways to do it in more bite-sized pieces.

“Can we take an individual learning goal from design, and make an engaging activity around it?" she asked. This past semester, as part of MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), a team was formed to bring design education to K-12 students using Rosa’s reflections as a starting point. The team consists of members of the MIT Museum education team (Dora Bever, Daniel Noh, and Carole Urbano), Rosa, and three MIT undergraduates, (Wonu Abiodun and Alexandra Coston, both part of the DesignPlus first-year Learning Community, as well as senior Kimmy McPherson).

The UROP students are integrating design skills into existing drop-in activities developed by the MIT Museum, as well as developing new activities. Their methodology involved research of existing K-12 programs, interviews on design pedagogy, prototyping and testing with small groups of peers, MIT employees, and students at local schools. “We’ve been treating the whole project like a design exercise itself,” explains Rosa. “Coming up with lots of ideas, presenting, having feedback sessions… It’s really been a collaboration.” Talking about the three MIT undergraduates who have been working with her, she adds:

These students are just incredible. They’ve really drawn on their own learning journeys to identify strategies that can make design more accessible for others who may not already see themselves as designers or makers.

The workshops isolate specific design-related learning goals, such as “testing and decision-making,” “low fidelity prototyping,” “synthesizing feedback,” “insight development,” “inspiration-finding,” “form making,” or “abstraction.” Exploration of each skill centers a playful, age-appropriate hands-on activity making design more accessible to a wider audience. The workshops are short, lasting 40–75 minutes. Initial workshop testing focuses on “ideation,” a well-known and widely used design skill. Groups used ideation techniques including sketching and idea detachment in service of creating a card featuring a LED circuit. Workshop participants shared their projects while reflecting on the specific design principles used throughout the process and how they might be used in other areas of their lives to solve everyday challenges.

With a background in architecture and design education, and a passion for pushing the boundaries of design, Rosa cultivates a thought-provoking approach focusing on collaboration, questioning, and the use of design for social change. Her creative practice and teaching often explore human/non-human interactions, as well as the intersection of technology and the human body through the design and fabrication of sculptural wearables for dance, speculative prosthetics, and assistive devices for people with disabilities.

One of the long-term goals of Rosa’s work with MIT MAD is to create a curriculum that could be widely used by schools and teachers, and that would be available through MIT MAD’s website. This will help to broaden the pipeline of students studying design and encourage a more diverse group of people to think about our built and digital worlds. At the core, Rosa’s work is not only shaping the next generation of designers, but also challenging the field to think critically and creatively about the world around us.

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