Digital Shop 1.1 | Design Experience Zero: And We’re OFF!


Today marks the half-way point for Design Experience Zero in Digital Shop, as we wrap up the third of six cohorts and dive into the new school year. So naturally, it’s time to reflect.

Grade 5 students are getting an iteration of last year’s Experience, but Grade 6-7-8’s are getting something completely new, something that builds on last year in significant new ways.

I spent the last few weeks of August trying to process a summer full of the most intense professional learning I’ve ever experienced. From Washington D.C. to California, Indiana, Michigan, and Vermont (in that order), I learned more from more learned people than any summer before. Design Experience Zero had to synthesize all of that and get the year started powerfully. Early indications are that we’ve done just that.

Some accomplishments, 2015-16. That was then...
Some accomplishments from last year. Source: DE.0 | 6-7-8

The challenge, of course, is how to inspire our kids to do more, learn more, be more this year. We accomplished a lot in 2015-16; the photo above, ripped from my lesson slide deck, only offers glimpses.

Well before the end of school, I decided after a lot of reflection that our focus for 2016-17 should be entrepreneurship and innovation. We ended the year with, among other things, student teams of then 7th graders presenting their original design ideas at Jefferson University Hospital. Other students expressed entrepreneurial tendencies. We acquired important new hardware for the shop, giving students powerful productive capabilities they never had before. We made connections with innovators and those who support them, from young entrepreneurs like Alixandra to the US Patent & Trademark Office and all the way to the White House. What would we DO with that much of a head start?

Yes, they remember. Source: DE.0 | 6-7-8

We made an impact last year because we followed a systematic approach: we learned design by doing design. As 2016-17’s Design Experience Zero came into focus, a systems theme emerged. Fortunately, the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Student Learning Standards for Technology, which I had the pleasure of helping to craft, provided guidance. Consider, for example:

  • 8.2.8.A.2 Examine a system, consider how each part relates to other parts, and discuss a part to redesign to improve the system.
  • 8.2.8.A.5 Describe how resources such as material, energy, information, time, tools, people, and capital contribute to a technological product or system.
  • 8.2.8.C.3 Evaluate the function, value, and aesthetics of a technological product or system, from the perspective of the user and the producer.
  • 8.2.8.C.5 Explain the interdependence of a subsystem that operates as part of a system.

Central to the capacity to understand and improve systems is the ability for students to see (and know they can change) the world around them. Agency by Design’s fantastic interactive is instructive:

Source: Agency by Design, Harvard University
Source: Agency by Design, Harvard University

Becoming a “Noticer” is central to that objective and so I determined we needed to work on those skills. With the help of former NCMS 8th grade writing teacher Teresita Doebley, whose blog, The Incredible Lightness of Seeing, is fantastic, we discussed some images to get kids thinking about what they saw and why. Then I asked them to study something nearby, the Middle School Office.

Design Experience Zero
Fishbowl Exercise: Studying the Middle School Office, DE.0 | 6-7-8

After observing the office for a few minutes, we debriefed to find commonalities. I wanted to see if any students made the connection between individual items and a larger whole.

Few did; we’ve got some work to do.

We were able to find some common threads and spark conversation around the theme of redesigning the world around us. One 6th grader, a kid who normally struggles in school, saw things differently than the others. To him, the office was not a collection of objects, it was as a place where “people work to support their families.” I thought that was interesting and showcased how he was thinking at a different level from his peers. I told him so.

We concluded with a Parts, Purposes & Complexities inspired exercise, a “See, Think, Wonder” reflection utilizing common household items.

Design Experience Zero
Students record video reflections about common objects. What do you see? What do you think? What do you wonder? DE.0 | 6-7-8

What’s Going Well

  • Kids get the magnitude of our program’s accomplishments to date, that these accomplishments are unprecedented in the history of the school, and that we are setting examples for others to follow. That makes me very, very happy.
  • Kids understand that the resources they have access to means we expect more from them this year. To wit: “With great power comes great responsibility.”
  • Kids are getting that despite being young, and living a daily life that is largely controlled by others, that they, nonetheless, have the power to change the world.

What Could Be Better

  • 40-minute periods are still too short. We barely have enough time to get into work at any depth before it is time to pack up. Five sequential days together ameliorates this to a degree, but, it’s still a major constraint.
  • We need to work on being mindful. Digital Shop is a place where kids can be creative and relax; some, shockingly (!) take that too far and think this means they don’t have to put in the effort required. I never thought that my program being ungraded would be a negative, but for some kids – the ones ‘too cool for school’ – it may be.
  • The private, secure video reflection tool,, is excellent but either kids aren’t taking it seriously, my questions aren’t good, or they are too wrapped up in the technology, or all of the above. I’m not seeing the depth I hoped for in the responses. I’ve thought about making a homework assignment using this tool; I think reflecting privately at home or on a device would make the reflection more effective. The kids are too distracted by each other (see above.)
Image: Pixabay
Image: Pixabay

Having completed three weeks of Design Experience Zero, we are now three weeks away from Design Experience One. The process of crafting these things from scratch is incredibly exhausting. I’ve written about it before. I’ve never skydived, and never will, but it feels like I’m free-falling through the clouds, hurtling toward the Earth at terminal velocity, waiting to pull the ripcord and wondering if the chute I’ve packed – the Design Experience – will open in time, allowing a precision landing … or if I’ll frap.

I don’t have a reserve, either.


  1. avatar
    Tere Doeb

    Thanks for the pingback to my blog! I’m having fun and am enjoying working with students again. Yes, you do have to work on the “too-cool-for-school” kids. How can we reach them?

    • avatar
      Mr. Jarrett

      Great question, Tere. You know 8th graders better than I do. I’ve reached out to the 8th grade team, it’s a conversation. Need an answer or strategies soon, things are about to get crankin’, Design Experience One is in three weeks. No time to waste…

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