Design Studio: A Practitioner’s Perspective.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 at 11:12 am

What if youth had an opportunity to both visit a museum and contribute to an exhibit? What would their experience look like? Yesterday, I spoke with Nancy Chou, who helps design programs for the Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian. She has helped develop a couple of programs that follow the design studio format I introduced in a previous post, City of Ruins and ArtScape. When we talked, she highlighted the importance of audience, community contribution, and informed choice in the Mobile Learning Institute at the Smithsonian’s programs. Below I’ve listed short program descriptions for City of Ruins and ArtScape, as well as excerpts from my interview with Nancy.

City of Ruins
Youth participants met for twice a week this month and last to contribute to a Mobile Video Series for the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum, part of a series of films based on the Cyprien Gaillard and Mario Garcia Torres exhibition. They reflected on these pieces, traveled off-site to view local “ruins” in person, and spoke with the visiting artist collective, Semiconductor. The short videos created by participants offer teen-developed interpretations of artwork and promote critical thinking to encourage viewers to build a deeper connection with the art.

Working in teams of 10 to 15 designers on two Fridays this month, youth participants designed an online space for other teens to post examples of art from their own communities. For this program, they are playing a key role in designing the space, launching it, and developing a plan for how to attract and sustain youth contributors to the site.

  • Nancy, what is the efficacy of the design studio approach?


“Right now, we are implementing a design studio approach in the context of a museum. Putting young people in the role of creating media and activities for youth visitors in a museum is really central to what we’re doing. The problem is that in the current museum setting, young people may visit museums, but their level of engagement may not be as deep as their potential. For instance, they might text their friends while looking at a Calder exhibit. Alternately, they could be listening to a curator who is giving a talk and not make meaning from or connections to the objects they see. Our vision is to redefine this core experience for youth visitors. How do we do that? We put young people in the seat of creating media and activities that can eventually be offered to other young people who visit the museum on their own, on field trips, or through other programs.

The design studio format provides a structured approach to work with young visitors to allow them to become producers, designers, and curators for other youth who visit museums. This experience gives young people in the program an audience: their peers. Knowing that what they create will be used by others transforms the whole experience.
Another major component of this format is that it creates a microcosm of a real-world experience. Young people work collectively to achieve a specific design task. If the design task is to create an exhibit that will be shown in a museum, participants perform specific roles, be it exhibit organizer, video producer, marketing team member, or material/artifact team member. The participants’ relationship to each other is interdependent but also task-oriented. In this way, participants are able to pursue individual interests, as well as utilize a certain level of prior knowledge to become experts. The whole experience creates an interdependent collective group of teams working to do something that will be used in museums. And, as experts, the participants see how their knowledge will sustain the survival of the collective group.

In contributing — by feeding back to the museum ecosystem instead of having an isolated experience — young participants are able to layer an understanding of how their individual role contributes to other human beings in their community.”


  • How does this approach differ from programs developed in the past?


“The New Learning Institute’s current pedagogical approach is a response to the general shift in the understanding of how young people learn [see additional resources below]. The current field of digital media learning is not centered on the tools; it’s about how the tools shape-shift or reimagine the way students learn. Utilizing the design studio format is one approach we use to create effective learning ecologies. Roles of adults, learning spaces, rituals, and design principles are all ways we provide pathways for young people to use tools as tools, not as the be-all and end-all outcome of their learning. A variety of methods can each contribute a useful “ingredient” to this “recipe.” Over time, the New Learning Institute continually refines the recipe for an approach that works.

“We’re more interested in creating a culture that is conducive to learning. We take ideas of new learning and create a space that reflects that culture.”


The New Learning Institute’s initial approach involved integrating our methods (primarily digital storytelling) into the classroom culture, in a school setting that was predominately teacher-centered. Now, as digital media has increasingly become an integral part of young people’s lives, it’s clear that the way that youth learn with it is not a one-off; it’s an integrated part of their learning. In real life, we choose which tool is best. Today the New Learning Institute goes beyond digital storytelling to provide a menu of different tools. We give students and professional development workshop participants options so that they can determine which tool or tools fit best with the design or problem-solving task at hand. Now, there is more of a strategic approach to provide a menu of options, whether it’s podcasting, Photoshop, or different mobile devices. Once the foundation is laid, then participants choose the option with our support. NLI staff are facilitators, not just people providing a vertical direction of knowledge.”

Thanks to Nancy for talking with me and taking the time to explain all of the exciting developments in the New Learning Institute’s programs.
Additional resources on design studios and new media learning:



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