As you pass through the mezzanine and head up the stairs into the Baarburg building, the cacophony of conversation and construction noises might stop you in your tracks. You spot a few Middle Schoolers heading toward the noise, so you follow them. The buzz of sawing, the rhythm of sewing machines, the whirring of motors, you move closer, opening the door, and it is clear - something very different is happening here. You have just entered the world of the new ISZL Middle School Design Lab.
With startup resources from the Fund for Excellence, the Middle School Design Lab is where Grade six students and above launch their International Baccalaureate Middle Years Design journey. The course challenges students to apply practical and creative-thinking skills to solve design problems. They are presented with a design situation, or sometimes choose one themselves, from which they identify a challenge or a problem; research, develop and create a product or solution; and evaluate its success. Parents may quickly discover that their kids are employing some of the same skills and strategies that they use in their own workplace, whether it’s a familiar tool like a SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunities, Threat) or through using the cycle of problem solving, leading to a model or a prototype. Design students are preparing to solve challenges that may impact their future, and they are increasingly excited to engage in a problem-based approach to learning.
Our changing world
As Grade 6 students consider the decisions taken to produce hand sanitiser, some students examine the formula for the product and packaging options, while others are at work designing logos that communicate who they are as a company. The focus in Grade 6 is on physical product development and solving problems that individuals may face. The pandemic meant that students could see the world around them adapt, and those problems crystallised for them what it meant to think like a designer. Students had a chance to design and sew masks that were targeting a younger audience, create signature scents that would encourage the use of hand sanitisers, and develop a packaging concept that would attract a user.
The work of design is not limited to constructing products and making a sale. In fact, the skills they build through creating a product are equally, if not, more important. Learning to manage themselves (planning, focusing, keeping the process clear and organised) and to manage team dynamics (negotiating tasks and dealing with conflict) will not only serve them in their other classes but position them to be responsible, empathetic citizens who are able to navigate and respond to global issues.
Take for example, a team of three of our students, huddled around a storyboard, peering at the monitor in front of them. Sebastian and his group are working on a media campaign to raise awareness and bring attention to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. They discuss how to best convey the issues of inequalities in education and, inspiration striking, they all quickly hurry out of the room. Fifteen minutes later they have borrowed a wheelchair from the nurse, devised a method to capture the footage needed and are back in front of the computer editing the clip. The project allows students to develop skills in creating powerful messages using digital media, increasing their awareness of a variety of global concerns and causes. As the project wraps up, students have an opportunity to speak with global leaders and changemakers around the world as a part of the ISZL Youth Forum Switzerland Event. This authenticity and relevance brings out the best in young learners. Particularly students at ISZL, who share a strong disposition for service and contributing to a larger community.
Designing for the consumer
An 8th grader sits with a younger student and asks, “ What do you find most enjoyable about arcade games?” The child looks to the sky, then to the ground, and responds in a matter-of-fact tone, “I guess it is because you have to try to win”. The grade 8 “design team” listens attentively, taking notes of not only what is said but how it was communicated. Later on, in class, the students examine the typical hand size of a third-grade student to ensure that the game they are designing is ergonomically appropriate for the user. This collaborative project is designed to not only build a keen sense of empathy for others but also develop a strong set of digital design skills that they can employ in other projects throughout their academic career.
Once the research is complete, the laser cutters and 3D printers begin to whirl. The expectation is that each design team will develop an arcade game that utilises their understanding of coding and electronics, transforming sketches into vector drawings for the laser cutters and rendering isometric drawings using 3D design programmes and 3D printers.
As students progress through the middle school design programme, they build their skill set for problem-solving and prototyping that can be of service across many disciplines. Middle school design culminates in the Grade 8 challenge, where students have an opportunity to create their own project to demonstrate all that they have learned. These inquiry projects can range from a choreographed dance video tutorial to solving an actual design problem presented by community members. These opportunities in design begin to provide the framework for the expectation that all students become lifelong learners, deepening their skills in self directed inquiry through entrepreneurship and innovation.