Design challenge encourages students to think globally

The chatter was loud May 5 inside the Nims Fine Arts Center at the Academy of the Sacred Heart (ASH) as students and teachers from eight schools in New Orleans displayed and explained their creative ideas in the Cooper Hewitt Design Fair.
Giving students the collaborative critical-thinking and problem-solving capabilities needed to succeed in the 21st century is what the Cooper Hewitt Design Challenge is all about.
Project ideas included creating a new planet where humans can live; raising money to buy a water well in South Sudan; creating safe habitats for endangered species; prototyping an easy-to-reach shelf and sink for those with various disabilities; creating a butterfly saver; producing a video about what locals think is today’s American Dream; and designing a refugee support center based on the idea of solidarity discussed in a religion class.
“Design is a new way of learning,” said Kim Robledo-Diga, deputy director of education for Cooper Hewitt, who mentioned how the company that designs a Smithsonian Institute Museum has visited New Orleans to give free summer design sessions to teachers since 2006. “It’s part of everyday life. The sooner you learn this, you can see how the world works and change it.”
During the last, week-long Cooper Hewitt summer design workshop in 2015, teachers from kindergarten through high school who attended were tasked to share the design training they learned and encourage their students to find solutions to challenges they observe around them – whether it was in their school or community or learned about through the curriculum.
The results were obvious at the fair at Sacred Heart. This was the fourth design fair held in New Orleans, Robledo-Diga said.

One team – sixth graders from the Academy of the Sacred Heart – worked since December to raise money to help purchase a water well in South Sudan, partnering with the global company H20 for Life that links schools to worldwide projects. Their design project was called “Hearts for Humanity” and was inspired by the book, “A Long Walk to Water.” The title was taken from a phrase used by one of characters, Salva Dutt, who said, “it’s all about humanity.”

The ASH students’ display showed prototypes of items (purses, blankets) they thought of selling, the actual necklaces and bracelets they made for sale as well as photos of bake sales, raffles and contests held to raise $2,000 for a well that would help young Sudanese girls get an education by not having to waste time traveling to retrieve water.

“What I love about it is that you have little ones solving problems,” said Jana Fogelman, community outreach coordinator at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Designers impressed
As Cooper Hewitt and representatives from six design firms walked around the fair, they engaged students to discuss their ideas and applauded their creativity.

“Well done,” a Cooper Hewitt representative told students from Young Audiences Charter School when she perused their habitat solutions for endangered animals. “I liked the way you thought about all the steps.”

Cooper Hewitt has had a dedicated education department that has worked with students for more than 10 years and has been working with teachers in New Orleans since 2006 with summer institutes.

“We train teachers about design and its process and give them a platform, and they then integrate it into their subject areas in the classroom,” Robledo-Diga said.

The design challenge was created as a way the museum – a Smithsonian Institute – could extend beyond explaining the objects displayed in the Cooper Hewitt collection to creating problem-solving exercises involving design for teachers and students nationwide. Because they want students to be engaged by working with what they know, many of the designs at these fairs are community-specific, Robledo-Diga said. They could be products to enhance living or something that would help the environment. She calls design a great entry point for students to believe they can make a change in the world.

“We try to get them involved with what they are experts in,” she said, “so the kids feel comfortable and want to contribute in a deeper way.”

For example, sophomores at the Academy of the Sacred Heart prototyped what they thought was needed in a Refugee Support Center, an idea that was sparked by a discussion about solidarity in their religion class.

Phyllis Taylor, representing event sponsors the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation, applauded students’ initiative to think in a different way. She told them to create a bucket list of what they want to do and see in life, giving examples of a museum in Paris as well as visiting the former Carnegie Home in New York, now the headquarters for Cooper Hewitt. She said they shouldn’t be discouraged by failure; they could learn from it. Failure does not mean the end of an idea, only a need to change focus and go in a different direction.

“Now, with what you have learned … you have been given the tools so you can take your ideas and your dreams and make them a reality,” Taylor said. She told the students that they could work independently or collaboratively on a functional design or on one of beauty. “The possibilities are unlimited.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  

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