Teaching through Design in Grades K-12

October 3, 2012

“Engagement, willingness to take risks, empowering students to believe that they can be creative by practicing, learning and encouraging them to problem solve, prototype, fail and iterate are unheard of ideas for most U.S. school systems.”

How did you first learn about industrial design? Most people that we’ve talked to happen upon it by chance, and, more often than not, it’s because a friend or family introduced them to it. I, for one, had absolutely no idea what exactly it entailed when I first came to Beyond Design (I’m obviously not a designer). Our school programs don’t teach design as they do business or history. It’s not part of the curriculum and therefore leaves several children and young adults clueless that this opportunity exists for them. Would things have been different had you learned about design at a younger age?

Today, there are very few high schools in the U.S. whose specific purpose is to teach design or to teach through design guidelines and thinking. Beyond that, there are even fewer elementary schools who implement design in their programs. At Beyond Design, we aspire to help students in grades K-12 understand design and the opportunities that are out there. We want to share our passion with them, and, even if they don’t go on to become a future designer or engineer, we believe that design has a way of getting through to students and teaching them lessons that are not easily taught otherwise.

In writing this post, I took a look at IDSA’s website to get more information about some schools and programs that are doing their part to further design education in grades K-12. You can read their story here.

DASH (Design and Architecture Senior High) is one of the oldest, yet still most popular, design schools in the nation. The school was founded in 1990 and was ranked the 16th best public high school in the nation in 2012. DASH has the only high school ID program in the country and has had some very skilled designers evolve from there. You can read more information on DASH here.

Photo from

A DASH student presents his final design to the NIKE panel for Nike's Future Sole 2010 design competition/Jordan division (photo from

The Da Vinci School, located in Los Angeles, has implemented three different schools in one. Da Vinci Design (founded in 2009) is a school that focuses students on a curriculum that prepares students for 21st century careers in advertising, architecture, digital design, industrial design, product design, user experience design and other jobs that call for skills in art, science and technology. Da Vinci Science (also founded in 2009) is a school that focuses students on a curriculum in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, providing students with hands-on experience. Most recently, the school opened the Da Vinci Innovation Academy in August 2011 to serve as a new hybrid educational model for K-8 students that combines school-site instruction with home-based learning.

All three Da Vinci schools are focused on project-based learning (PBL) which is a “learn-by-doing” curriculum that integrates core subjects with real-life problems to be solved. You can learn more about the Da Vinci School here.

Da Vinci Schools (photos from

In Detroit, the Henry Ford Learning Institute has opened three schools that focus on design education – the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies (HFA) in Detroit, Henry Ford Academy: Alameda School for Art + Design in San Antonio, and the Henry Ford Academy: Elementary School (also in Detroit). The founding principle is similar to that of the The Da Vinci School in that they believe in learning by doing. They also focus much of their teaching on design thinking as a process that leads to innovation. You can read more about HFLI here.

HFLI students (photos from and

In Philadelphia, CHAD (Charter High School for Architecture & Design) is the first charter high school for architecture and design in the nation. It was opened in 1999 with the goal of using architecture and design to facilitate more effective learning of traditional subjects, and to encourage a greater awareness of good design and the built environment.

“We don’t want all our students to become architects. More and more studies are showing the measurable, positive impact of design on people’s social, physical and mental health. We’d like them to leave CHAD with an appreciation for how design can improve their lives and the lives of others.”

-Tony Bracali, Principal

You can learn more about CHAD here.

CHAD student work (images from

In addition to the schools that are highlighted above, The Industrial Design Outreach (iDo) initiative is a design program that has been implemented in four San Francisco public high schools. It was founded in 2003 as a direct response to the lack of design course offerings in San Francisco’s underserved high schools. The mission of iDo is to promote the field of industrial design and use its methodologies to enhance education. Participants and San Francisco State University (SF State) students majoring in design collaborate on developing and delivering hands-on interdisciplinary design projects. The program is all about developing the next generation of creative thinkers in the industry. iDo takes a very innovative approach to design education.

The California Community Bench (photo from

Another program that has done a lot of work toward furthering design education is the work of Emily Pilloton and Project H, a nonprofit design organization that designs systems for the people and places that need it most and where it will make a real difference.

“Our specific focus is the transformation of curricula, environments, and experiences for K-12 educational institutions in the US, centering around our cornerstone initiative: our Studio H design/build high school program originally launched in Bertie County, North Carolina, and now based out of Realm Charter School in Berkeley, California.”
– Project H

Read more about Project H and Studio H. They are both very impressive initiatives.

Photo from

As you can see, there is definitely an effort being made in and around the design community to teach the younger generations about design and the impact it can have on their lives. There are so many different reasons that design needs to be implemented in K-12 school programs throughout the nation. Not only does it help students develop creative problem-solving skills and learn the principles of teamwork, but it gives them an appreciation for and understanding of the physical environment and its impact on our quality of life. It also allows them to have fun while learning. Our hope, as designers, is to raise awareness for design in the community and teach students how it can affect their lives down the road.

Educating students on the entire process of product development will not only teach them the principles of design and engineering, but also business, marketing, sales, etc. and encourage a more successful future.

Written by: Jessie Mumgaard, Marketing Communications Manager, Beyond Design, Inc.

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