Wednesday, March 16, 2016

BCS Middle School 8th Grade “Design Challenge” Intersession

Imagine an environmentally sustainable school that includes a roof top garden where crops are harvested for school lunch, a grey water system to flush toilets, and solar panels that harness the sun’s energy for electricity. Picture buildings with expansive windows that invite in an abundance of natural light, moveable walls to create multi-purpose educational spaces, interactive furniture that encourages high energy students to focus, and ramps leading to every classroom to accommodate students and staff with disabilities.

You would expect this utopian learning environment to be the work of an experienced architectural design firm, but these are the innovative features Bullis Charter School eighth graders incorporated into their school designs during their recently completed “Design Challenge” Intersession. For three weeks,
students worked in small groups to develop comprehensive “School of the Future” designs. They were instructed to use green design elements, to incorporate educational philosophy, and to leverage community connections. Students interviewed various
experts in the fields of architecture, interior design, and education, and visited a zero-waste home in Palo Alto. Upon the completion of the Intersession, these same experts sat on a panel to hear the students’ presentations, look over their models, provide constructive feedback, and select the most innovative school design. The winning group will submit their digital designs, laser-cut models, presentations, and essays about their design to a competition called SchoolsNEXT, run by the Association for Learning Environments. Last year, the winning BCS team advanced all the way to the final round of this international competition.

"Eighth graders are at an age when they are forming strong opinions about how society should function," says eighth grade teacher Rebecca Witmer. "Creating the ideal school engages them because they enjoy critically examining school, breaking down institutions as they currently know them, and designing a place where they want to spend their time."

This year, the students were tasked with the special focus to create a campus that would meet the needs of underserved students, who make up one in five children in our larger community. The students mapped out areas of poverty in the Bay Area and studied struggling school districts. Students discovered that not everyone learns in the same way and that some students have different needs, whether physical or mental. Empathy-building is a critical element in the design thinking process, and conducting this research opened the students’ eyes to different learning styles as well as to the experiences of others.

The Design Challenge Intersession supports the development of 21st century skills, including critical thinking, creativity, time management and perseverance. Students are challenged to work collaboratively in groups and produce concrete results in a short time frame. When they
enter the classroom or the Fablab, they know what they need to do and on which aspect of their project they need to focus. The students conquered a variety of real world challenges, such as technical difficulties, and yet every group met the tight deadline. BCS eighth grader, Kat, learned something powerful about her own capabilities, “It really is possible to get this done in three weeks and it was amazing to see it all come together in the end.”