YEARS AGO, we had a running joke at Fast Company: What if we tallied up all the game-changing ideas CEOs claimed had come from their 13-year-old kids? We could do a story on how middle schoolers were the secret sauce in America's innovation recipe!
Meant as a spoof of isn't-my-child-a-cute-genius-itis, the joke actually had a dash of merit. Of course middle schoolers would be our future innovators — they would grow up, after all, and that space between their earbuds would become the seedbed for the businesses of the future.
Or maybe not. An alarming study released last year found that American kids' scores on tests measuring creativity have been steadily declining since 1990. The drop has serious implications for our nation's competitiveness. A 1999 Department of Labor report outlining skills needed in the 21st-century workplace cited creative thinking, problem solving, and "seeing things in the mind's eye." More recently, when IBM asked 1,500 CEOs to name their top "leadership competency," they ranked creativity first.
Some analysts point to the time kids spend on TV and video games as culprits. Others point to the decimation of creative curricula in schools, as educators race to teach subjects covered on mandated tests.
All those things are worrisome, but they weren't top of mind when Rinat Aruh, of the New York industrial design studio Aruliden, offered to teach a seminar on design to a bunch of eighth graders at the School at Columbia. (The student body of the private K-8 school includes the offspring of university professors and a diverse group of children, chosen by lottery, from the neighborhood.) Aruh and her cofounder, Johan Liden, had simply wanted to thank the school for allowing their studio to conduct student focus groups for a client, Microsoft. The kids had come up with some "mind-blowing" ideas, says Aruh.
Aruh called their seminar Tools for Schools. The idea was that kids would learn how design works by creating furniture for the classroom of the future. To give the project the authenticity of designing for a real client, she recruited a friend to help out — Jerry Helling, president of the tony North Carolina furniture company Bernhardt Design. "We had no idea how important a topic this was," Helling confesses. "We're just supporters of design education, and we wanted to help."
This was hardly the first time a design firm had tried to introduce design into an educational program. Among others, the folks at Ideo have been teaching design-thinking skills to teachers in Palo Alto and Dearborn, Michigan; Project Interaction, a New York-based group, fields an after-school program that teaches high schoolers to use design to change their communities; and Marc Ecko's Sweat Equity Enterprises (SEE) has been bringing teens and businesses together in a design collaborative since 2005.
But unlike most efforts, Tools for Schools was fully integrated into the School at Columbia's yearlong curriculum. It became part of math class, where students studied ratios and proportion; science, where they investigated materials; and English, where they worked on their presentations. "The theory is, if you have deep learning, you have more hooks to attach new learning onto," says Annette Raphel, head of the School at Columbia. "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."
The kids were split into three teams — desk, chair, and locker — and dove into the research. They interviewed teachers, administrators, and other students, and scanned the web and magazines for inspiration. Their investigations turned up real challenges. "The chairs we sit in are really uncomfortable," said one student. Another learned that teachers are frustrated by the confines of classrooms, the aisles of desks, the backpacks scattered on the floor, and so on.
Soon they were coming up with big ideas, such as "Our lockers are our bedrooms for the year" and "A desk with a writable surface would reduce our paper waste from doodling." They also had eureka moments: One student accidentally dropped a bunch of balls from a science project on his chair at home, sat down, and discovered they were actually comfortable. Bingo! "Our chair could be made with wooden balls like in taxi seats. Then you could move around so you wouldn't be distracted in class." Another student asked his father, a systems analyst, what helped him to think. Pondering the question, his father swiveled around in his chair. Zing! "When you're bored listening to a teacher, you start to fidget. So our chair goes up and down, and swivels. Like McDonald's."
The students moved on, doing mood boards and thumbnails, building prototypes out of pipe cleaners and balsa wood, and creating sophisticated 3-D models. By December, they were doing animated PowerPoint presentations that considered details such as cost of materials, scope of potential markets, and advertising strategies.
Once the kids completed their final designs, Aruh's firm created renderings (shown here for the first time). Bernhardt plans to turn these into finished prototypes, which will be showcased at its booth at this May's International Contemporary Furniture Fair at New York's Javits Center. But even more impressive, Aruh's and Bernhardt's teams now have a fat dossier of valuable new research into a business category that design has seemingly forgotten. "The kids came up with four or five things that are significant in how furniture is designed," says Helling. "I had no idea, for example, that a locker was so important, both psychologically and for efficiency. And the idea that they need to fidget to concentrate is really key."
Clearly, the project showed that kids as young as 13 can grasp the rigorous process that designers undertake. It also reflected the fact that students are enthusiastic learners — of math, science, and writing — when those subjects are integrated into a project they care about.
"There's a mismatch between the way subjects are taught and how students like to learn," says Meredith Davis, who authored the study of design in K-12 education for the National Endowment for the Arts. "We compartmentalize and reduce learning to nuggets of skills. Design, meanwhile, goes out to the big-idea world: What is the bigger goal and what skills are important to getting there? Students gravitate to that."
"This will transform how these kids think about education," adds the School at Columbia's 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." Sounds like the very definition of design. And the questions the kids directed at Aruh on the last day of the Columbia project got to the very essence of being a professional designer. "Will these products actually be sold?" they asked. "Will our names be on them?"
Check out the first of a series of cool videos that Aruliden produced documenting the project. Right off, you can see that these kids 'got it.' "What's design?" they were asked. "Creativity with a purpose," they responded. And then they proved it.
A version of this article appeared in the April 2011 issue of Fast Company magazine.