Here at Spark, we’re big supporters of learning-through-doing. We love projects that get children’s hands dirty and their minds working at the same time. We’re always excited to hear about successful programs that put this practice into action, which is why the work of eighth graders at the School at Columbia caught our eye.

A new seminar, called Tools for Schools, began as a way of thanking the school for allowing New York industrial design studio Aruliden to conduct student focus groups for client Microsoft. The goal of the program was to teach children design by charging them with the task of designing furniture for future classrooms. Jerry Helling, president of the North Carolina furniture company Bernhardt Design, was also recruited to help with the project, adding an authentic element to the program by giving the students a real client.

Far from an insular project, Tools for Schools was integrated into every dimension of the students’ curriculum. In science class students studied and tested materials, in math they learned about ratios and proportion, and in English they prepared powerpoint presentations explaining their designs. Annette Raphel, head of the School at Columbia told Fast Company,

“The theory is, if you have deep learning, you have more hooks to attach new learning onto. When you get out of school, that’s what really happens. You don’t learn math to pass a test but to solve problems that require math skills. That’s bigger than a standardized test.”

Students were split into groups that focused on the design of three specific pieces of furniture– a chair, a desk, and a locker. A large part of the project involved interviewing students and teachers, assessing needs, and using creative problem solving to reach innovative solutions. As both consumers and designers, the students were able to pinpoint challenges and come up with some pretty big ideas. Some insightful ideas included the concept that, “Our lockers are our bedrooms for the year” and unique solutions like, “A desk with a writable surface would reduce our paper waste from doodling.”

As the school year wore on, the students’ work moved from concept to design, from prototypes to professional 3D models. Aruliden design studio even created renderings of the final designs that Bernhardt plans to turn into finished prototypes to be showcased at May’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York.

“This will transform how these kids think about education,” adds Annette Raphel. “Everybody’s worried about assessing and evaluating, but sometimes it’s not about the right answers. You need adults who can deal with flexibility and ambiguity, and who can appreciate creativity as being as important a skill as being able to solve a math problem.”

We’re excited by the outcomes of this program and hope to see even more stories of successfully implemented design-based curriculums throughout the coming school year. Know of a school or program that’s got an eye on design? Let us know!

For more information on Tools for Schools and to see a slideshow of the students’ work, read the article in Fast Company!