How Design Can Get Kids On the Path to Tech Careers

A conversation with Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall, the founder of a new type of science and math academy.


“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it? And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world? nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.” –Hannah Arendt

Her name comes up in almost any discussion about transforming education: Dr. Stephanie Pace Marshall. Dr. Marshall is the founding president (1986-2007) and president emeritus of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA), an internationally renowned, publicly funded residential high school (10th to 12th grade) that emphasizes a curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).


Dr. Marshall’s first mandate in developing the concept for this decidedly new learning experience was: “Let’s not call it a school but rather a ‘center for inquiry and imagination.'” When IMSA’s funding was in jeopardy, Dr. Marshall legendarily brought her students to the Illinois state capitol and set up classes in the rotunda. There they conducted physics and chemistry experiments, spoke Japanese and Russian, staged a scene from a Shakespearean play, and met with legislators. IMSA’s funding agreement was rectified. With STEM education a U.S. priority and increasingly seen as the means to competing with developing giants like China and India, I asked Dr. Marshall about the opportunities and challenges we face in advancing STEM learning.

How can the entanglement of design and education move the unmovable object — i.e. the established, staid institution of education?

I love this question, because it seeks to get at the core of design and its role in helping to co-create an educational system worthy of our children. I would amend it slightly however, to ask: ‘How can design both enter into and perturb a new conversation about education so the system becomes disturbed enough to begin living into their desired future now?’


“Design enables us to redefine who and how we now want to be.”

I am not a credentialed designer, but as a leader I have always been mindful of the power of design to evoke changes in perception, attitudes, experiences, and behaviors by helping to change the relationships, patterns, and shape of the system. For me, designers are storytellers. They speak a patterned and relational language, and they use it to create environments and experiences that change the system’s neural network and the traditional dynamics of who and how we move, think, and behave, within a particular place. Design invites us to navigate a new narrative, to alter the map and landscape we have traditionally traveled, and to be different and belong differently to a place. Design enables us to reclaim spaces and behaviors that may not have been accessible before and redefine who and how we now want to be.

Design enables us to encode our stories and create our maps. It makes our covenants visible, and it illuminates our beliefs and values. And when this happens, when design enables our children’s, teachers’, and system’s inventive genius to flourish, education will change.

Sometimes there are moments in human history that seem to beckon awakenings. They perturb us to reevaluate our beliefs, assumptions, and reigning cultural stories. They challenge us to synthesize and integrate seemingly disparate forms of knowledge into new relationships, new patterns, and new theories. They invite us to invent new language, new rules, and new structures. They call us to create and live into new stories of possibility. The ancient Greeks called this time kairos, the “right moment.” It is a time when reality embraces possibility.


What were the key ideas and goals behind creating a learning community like IMSA?

The idea of a residential secondary institution for students talented in mathematics and science was proposed by Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman. This was in the fall of 1983 and his vision was a response to the perceived national crisis in developing STEM talent. But as we know, the crisis persists. The achievement level of U.S. students on internationally benchmarked standardized tests in science and mathematics remain dismal and the needs of our nation’s most talented youth remain unfulfilled. Traditional models for educating academically talented students in STEM (Advance Placement courses) have not been able to nurture our next generation of STEM researchers, innovators, leaders, and inventors.


[Dr. Marshall talks to a student in a science class.]

From inception, IMSA sought not only to develop decidedly different scientific minds, but also to develop a decidedly different residential learning community — one that was nurturing and innovative, and one that instilled a sense of stewardship, and an obligation to give back. As a dynamic teaching and learning laboratory, IMSA continues to evolve, yet the roots of our founding ideas and goals remain. Here’s what they were and still are. The ‘IMSA idea’ means:


1. A collaborative partnership between diverse stakeholders — education, science, research, technology, innovation, business, and government.

2. Serving as a catalyst and laboratory to stimulate excellence in STEM teaching and learning.

3. Multi-dimensional admission criteria for identifying STEM talent and potential beyond a standardized test score.

4. An innovative, advanced and “uniquely challenging” curriculum designed by IMSA faculty that integrates the habits of mind of science and mathematics with those of the arts and humanities. Advanced placement (AP) would not be the content or driver of the curriculum.

5. Personalized learning opportunities both on and off campus for independent study, research and mentorships.

6. Formal interaction with some of the great minds of our time.

7. Developing deep disciplinary and interdisciplinary expertise and integrative ways of knowing and experiencing the interdisciplinary nature of science by solving complex multidisciplinary problems.

8. Learning experiences designed using current research on the learning sciences and how we learn.

9. Commitment to treat each student as if he or she is capable of significantly influencing life on the planet.

10. Embodies the following programmatic commitments: distributed expertise with students and teachers serving as co-learners and collaborators; fostering integrative habits of mind; designing competency-driven, inquiry-based, problem-centered, and integrative curriculum; experiential and technology embedded instruction; student-driven inquiry and research; flexible time structures to align with and support curricular and instructional goals and the commitment to share our learning, practices, processes, materials and models with educators and schools in Illinois and beyond.

Why did you feel so strongly about not calling IMSA a “school”?

It was very clear to me that whenever you say the word ‘school,’ it conjures up mental images and models of our experiences and behavior in a place — and accompanying that ‘place model’ is a kaleidoscope of memories and emotions about how that place looked and worked — how we felt in it, what was rewarded, celebrated and expected, and who we were supposed to be as learners in that place. Unfortunately, many of these mental models of how we should learn in school are completely at odds with how real learning happens and how it’s demonstrated in the real world. False proxies for learning often erode our children’s vibrant intellectual and creative potentials because they diminish the excitement of real learning and discovery. Everyone knows that finishing a course and a textbook does not mean achievement. Listening to a lecture does not mean understanding. Getting a high score on a high-stakes standardized test does not mean proficiency. Credentialing does not mean competency. Our children know it, too, yet it persists.


From IMSA’s inception, I knew that if we called IMSA a school, I would spend most of my time explaining what we were not instead of what we were. I would be telling people what we didn’t do rather than what we did do.

Years ago, a wise colleague told me to be careful because what you call it becomes what it is. This was a powerful caveat — calling ourselves an academy and a ‘teaching and learning laboratory for imagination and inquiry’ stimulates questions that enable us to have the conversations we want to have. All transformation begins in language. I did not want IMSA to be confined within a school story because that narrative would have been far too small for our imagination. You simply cannot create new maps from old stories.

[Images courtesy Illinois Math and Science Academy]


About the author

Trung Le is a principal education designer at Cannon Design. Over the past two years he has helped lead an interdisciplinary group of designers and educators from the U.S., U.K., Canada, and Germany, to collaborate on a research project that resulted in the publication The Third Teacher: 79 Ways You Can Use Design to Transform Teaching & Learning