Studio H: Using Design to Cultivate Personal Skills and Serve the Community

Welcome to Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina, where just 27% of 3rd-8th grade students in 2007 were passing English and Math state standards, and where approximately 95% of public school students receive free/reduced-rate lunches. Where the population caps around 20,000, the largest local employer is the Perdue chicken processing plant, and the main economy is agriculture.

In the ultimate epitomization of the maxim "Go where you are needed," Bertie County is also home to the community-focused nonprofit group Project H Design. Headed by Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, and supported by both the W.K. Kellogg and Adobe Foundations, this nonprofit "uses the power of design and hands-on building to catalyze communities and public education from within." With several student-built community projects under its belt and a near-cult following on Twitter, the group has gained national attention for its "flagship program," Studio H.

Studio H is a public high school "design/build" curriculum that—at the time of its creation—was the country's first design, vocation, and community service program in a public high school. The mission, Pilloton notes, was to encourage design thinking in the classroom without resorting to being a "glorified art class." "My hope for Studio H and for this type of curriculum and academic approach is that the things we do produce go beyond the classroom and can be looked at examples of progress," she added.

When Project H Design first arrived in Bertie County, the plan was for Pilloton and Miller to become vocational teachers within the public school district. The invitation was thanks to an "amazing superintendent named Dr. Chip Zullinger who brought us in specifically because we could bring in a new perspective," Pilloton said. Unfortunately, the plan fell through and the two had to get creative.

Instead, Studio H was founded as an official community college course where high school juniors earn college credits and have the opportunity to partake in a paid summer internship as well. Each Studio H "semester" focuses on a small number of large community projects, which students design and build from start to finish.

Looking back on the situation, Pilloton says it was the best thing that could have happened. "We got really lucky," she laughed. "If we'd gone by that [public school] route, we'd have had to abide by state curriculum in very specific quantitative benchmarks. [...] We were forced to figure out how else to teach. So, we went to a local community college (about an hour away) and looked at their course offerings. Now, the only curricular benchmarks are defined by the community college, which are much looser. Luckily, we do not to have to teach to a test, but we do have to strike a balance."

Together, Miller and Pilloton designed Studio H's curriculum as a specific extension of the work they had started doing in Bertie County, and launched the offering in 2010. "Before we wrote Studio H as curriculum, we'd been working in Bertie on more architectural initiatives such as 'The Learning Landscape'—an education playground system that you can build in a day for free and helps you teach core subjects through activity. Studio H became the exclamation point that we're onto something here. There's so much possibility for what design can deliver to a school district," said Pilloton.

Studio H borrows from Project H Design's six overall design tenets, a group of principles Pilloton describes as their makeshift "business plan."

  1. There is no design without (critical) action;
  2. We design WITH, not FOR;
  3. We document, share, and measure;
  4. We start locally and scale globally;
  5. We design systems, not stuff;
  6. We build.

"There's a lot of experimentation going on right now," Pilloton said. "These six Design Tenets were a way for us to say 'Here are six values that we can always come back to. Are we doing these things and working in a way that’s responsive to and serving these people?'"

There has been a lot of positive response to what Project H Design and Studio H are accomplishing, as evidenced by their 400,000+ Twitter Followers and thousands of Facebook Page Fans. Pilloton attributes the large social media following to peer support, diligent sharing, and the infamous "Colbert Bump":

In January 2008, I think it was just a serendipitous moment when a lot of other designers were feeling the same way as we did [about the state of education]. So, I became a spokesperson & a lightning rod for this type of work.

Part of our practice has always been really diligent documentation. Selfishly, I want to know what I'm doing so a week from now, a year from now, I can really understand where everything we're doing now came from. I was blogging and I was sharing info mostly because I wanted feedback. If people were inspired by it, I wanted to have that conversation. The documentation of sharing lends itself really well to a platform like Facebook or Twitter.

Then, in January 2010, I was invited to be on The Colbert Report. We had 44,000 Twitter Followers before the show. After the show, we broke 100,000 Followers within two weeks. Now, we have a lot of small conversations we wouldn't have found otherwise. We also get access to other teachers or school districts or other valuable entities.

Perhaps the most important characteristic of Studio H is that it opens up opportunities for students that they likely would not have had otherwise. While a few students here and there have some familiarity with the tools Studio H uses, the large majority come in as blank slates.

"Every thing is really, really new for the students," Pilloton said. "Last year, we had students who came in who didn't know how to read a ruler and were reading at a 6th or 7th grade level. One time, I started talking about the 'color wheel' and some students didn't understand because they have never had an art class. A couple kids have seen some of the tools before but, for the most part, everyone's coming to it with zero background. This way, we can teach in a standardized way with a specific procedure."

"We didn't write this program with intention to recruit the next generation of architects," Pilloton explained. "Not all our students are going to go to college, so we wanted to be honest about 'What else can we leave them with?' One student is now taking community college courses in welding so he can have his professional certification by the time he graduates. Another student comes from a farming family where no one else has graduated from high school or gone to college. When we went to design the Farmer's Market, it was his initial concept sketch that we ended up developing as a class. Through that process, I think he was able to look at agriculture in a different kind of way. He recently applied to North Carolina State for Agriculture and just got accepted!"

Pilloton is proud of Studio H's successes thus far, but also recognizes that there is always more work to be done. "We're in this funny moment of Limbo," she said. "We're at a tipping point where we're on to something where we can really exponentially build on what we've done."

Studio H: Design. Build. Transform. (Promo #1) from Project H Design on Vimeo.

To connect with Project H Design and Studio H, visit ProjectHDesign.org and Studio-H.org.

Personal Story compiled by Jon Barilone
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