Friday, October 2, 2009

College as a Playground or Design Studio



Yesterday as I was leaving my office late at night I saw something that has had me thinking ever since.  Near the door where I exit to go to my car there was a large advertisement for my institution's ORCA Grant program.  When it was placed there it wasn't all that different from any other advertisement I might have seen on campus--a couple of images, a bit of detail about the program, and a contact--however; it had been transformed into something much more creative and interesting than a poster advertising research grants.  There were a couple of reasons why this happened.  First, the poster (in its infant stage) was largely white, with a few black lines here and there.  On top of that, someone had taped a package of colored magic markers to the posterboard.  Finally, the posterboard was placed in a high-traffic student commons area where students gather to sleep, eat, study, etc.  All of these things added up, in students minds, to be an invitation to engage with the ad and create something completely original.  What was even more interesting to me was that this urge to create led students to create another "original creation" if you will, on the microwave stand nearby the ad.    Next to these nicely decorated styrofoam cups was a hand-written sign that said "Feel free to drink from one of these clean, decorated cups. "
This was all quite fascinating to me.  Without any real direction and in a wikipedia-like and asynchronous collaborative way, a group of students had produced something that was actually quite sophisticated (the artwork on the poster and the cups was quite well done--probably because students in the visual arts program take their classes on the floor just above where my office is located).  It left me wondering how we might engage students creativity and desire for play in ways that would both lead to good learning and also result in the creation or development of meaningful artifacts, solutions, etc.

What if campuses intentionally designed spaces (physical or otherwise) that invited students to engage with some sort of meaningful problem or task on an informal level and that also provided them with access to resources or tools that would help them create or produce something worthwhile?  I'm not talking about a studio, lab, or workshop.  Good things happen in those places, but the formal nature of the interactions and work there can sometimes limit learning.  Additionally, only a student registered for the course or invited by the lab director can participate.  What I am describing here is a sort of emergent workspace that grows on its own as students make the choice to be there and participate.  

For example, a department who wants a new logo or brand that could identify them and communicate their mission could create a large posterboard like the one I referenced above and place it in a very public space.  On the posterboard could be a couple of concise, simple directions (e.g. "We are the Office of First-Year Experience.  Our mission is to help students successfully transition into BYU and become members of our community of learners.  We need a new logo.").  Around the posterboard would be some basic materials that could be used to create something--markers, construction paper, double-sided tape, and pipe cleaner.  I wonder what might happen.  Would students pay attention to it?  Would they create something of enough quality that we might consider using even a part of it?  Would they steal my pipe cleaner?  I don't know.   

To make something like this work, it might need to be a bit more formal, but I think it could be done.  It could start with simple, but meaningful challenges that the university wants solutions for (e.g. The significant financial cost of people taking far more paper towels from a restroom dispenser than they reasonably need to dry their hands).  A call could go out across campus asking for students willing to come together to work on the project--it would be important that this invitation be broadly spread so that interdisciplinary teams form.  Students could have an advisor from administration that could help connect them with resources and be an advocate for the adoption of their solution (given that it is of sufficient quality).  Then, and this is key, students could be brought together after the completion of the project to reflect on the process and what they have learned, with particular emphasis on helping them connect their experience to coursework from their discipline.  

Would it work?  How could it be structured enough to pan out, but informal enough that students engage willingly and leave their "this is an assignment and I'm going to jump hoops" mentality at home?

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