REVENGE OF THE USER

REVENGE OF THE USER

On most days, I say to myself and others: “It is a great time to be a student.” I say this with respect to all the new technological advances and tools to which students currently have access. I would even argue that we are at the crux of the golden age of design. Anyone with internet access and a modern cell phone can shoot, edit, and publish a short film. Anyone with a modern computer or laptop can create a three dimensional Computer Aided Design (CAD) drawing. Anyone can take this CAD drawing and print a prototype using a desktop 3D printer. The line between imagination and reality is disappearing.

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BIRTH PANGS--AND THRILLS--AS WE LAUNCH

Photo credit: http://www.mosta2bal.com/vb/  lyncache/3/30895wall.jpg

Photo credit: http://www.mosta2bal.com/vb/lyncache/3/30895wall.jpg

All of us were attracted to Lab Atlanta for its paradigm-shifting potential. To varying degrees, we had each begun to grow tired of the boxes, walls, and bell schedules in which most conventional schooling gets confined. Nevertheless, these educational constraints had grown quite familiar to us all--even comfortable. We had learned to know them well, and to operate competently within the inertia of this default system.

Embarking on a new path beyond those boxes, walls, and bells is liberating. But it is hardly the path of least resistance. As developmental psychologists, researchers and coauthors Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey note, we are “surrender[ing] a familiar equilibrium for what will eventually be a new, more adaptive one” (from An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, p.114).

Despite our familiar comfort with the educational status quo, we embrace this unique opportunity to grow as individual professionals, and as a group of committed faculty colleagues. But that doesn’t eliminate the occasional, lingering sense of loss. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, the famous reflection by the French writer Anatole France seems pertinent here: “All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.”

Okay. Point made. Enough of this melodramatic hyperbole. It’s equally true that these birth pangs are thrilling. Challenging at times, perhaps; but also deeply satisfying, truly delightful at their best. We enjoy an extraordinary creative opportunity here. We have a strong, rich, diverse ecosystem of kindred minds and spirits supporting our innovation process. Together with these willing collaborators and the extraordinary group of students who have enrolled for our initial semester, we can’t wait to start delivering on our distinctive mission: to develop civically-engaged, design-minded leaders focused on building a vibrant, sustainable future for themselves and the city of Atlanta.

Carpe diem, Lab Atlanta. We can’t wait to get going with our first cohort of students in January….

Mike Pardee, Associate Director

The Thread and the Importance of Listening

Image Credit: Via Twitter 8.31.16 @buffyjhamilton

Image Credit: Via Twitter 8.31.16 @buffyjhamilton

As our faculty team designs the Lab Atlanta experience, the design thinking cycle has become more and more natural to us. The broad strokes of flares and narrows are observable patterns as we ideate and prototype, reminding one another of our check points as we circle back to consider our user (10th graders) and why we are designing (our Mission). In fact, I would suggest there have been some moments of seemingly elegant design, when the connections between the disciplines come spiraling together and the real world collaborates to signal, "yes, this is right; this is what we're after." Indeed, these are magical moments --"moving days" as a colleague wrote previously. 

But, every day is not such smooth-sailing. The design process is inherently messy, and collaboration requires attention to not only the task at hand but maintenance of the group dynamics--especially, the giving and receiving of feedback and of listening to one another. For the first time this week, with a group-imposed deadline on the horizon and individuals working on various pieces of curriculum,  aflare arose inside the focus. As we workshopped one another's prototype for various elements of our "courses," there was a moment when we found ourselves holding onto our own ideas (mine included), not clearly aligning our work to our stated mission, and our own critical feedback disrupted what we now recognize as "our honeymoon phase." 

So, how did we work it out? A time-out. Transparency. Important 1:1 conversations. Laughter. Naming the issue(s). Sleep. Reframing the criticism as "yes, and." Listening. And, we had a conversation about low-resolution prototyping, not holding too fast to our ideas, more rapid prototyping, less formal presenting, and falling in love with our user. (Admittedly, that last one still needs some unpacking...)

By week's end, we were able to release the pause button. We were able to flare as a group as we worked with our branding designers and city design partner.  And, we recommitted ourselves to the work towards our deadline. I hope we each came away with an understanding and appreciation for the value of our connectedness, the importance of all the relationships we are forming with each other and externally, and a reminder offered so beautifully here by poet William Stafford that there is a thread we are following. Might be hard to explain it sometimes, but it's there and it keeps us going. Yes, Natasha Trethewey, poetry does invite us to listen with our whole selves, to mediate the world and language that can be divisive, to find that thread, and to breath in "yes, and" instead of "yeah, but." 

Laura Deisley, Founding Director

WINDOW SEAT

In college, all of my courses were taught in one building: Hathaway Hall.  As one of the main buildings on my college campus, there were few students who could escape entering the foreboding structure. Built in 1967, Hathaway Hall was an impressive and remarkable architectural wonder, with its imposing angles and concrete, fortress-like appearance.  As a Political Science major, a majority of my classes were held in the evening, either on the first floor, or in the basement of the building. Prior to class, my emotions would go through a tailspin. First, these were my favorite classes. I loved the conversations around politics and political theory. Yet the location of the class was less desirable than the information I gathered. 

Allow me to explain. Classrooms within Hathaway Hall were large concrete blocks which often felt cold and ominous. The absence of eye level windows cast a shadow over the room.  A description posted onFrankfortpublicart.com describes the building as follows:

It has a flat roof, which was a new feature of buildings at that time, and is devoid of ornamentation. The classroom windows are placed near the ceiling, which allows light to pour into the rooms but doesn’t allow students to “be distracted” by staring out the window --an experimental idea of the time. In 1968 it became the first building in Kentucky to win an Institute Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects.

The popularity of these buildings was massive. Buildings like these appeared not only in Kentucky, but in various other locations around the city. 
I remember seeing buildings like these on other campuses that I visited before enrolling at Kentucky State University. This style of architecture--called Brutalism--was largely influenced by the work of Swiss architect, designer, urban planner Le Corbusier.  His first large scale project, Unité d'Habitation in Marseille, France was completed in 1952 as a multi-family residential project, built to house French citizens who were dislocated after the World War II bombing of France. For Le Corbusier and others, the aesthetics on the outside were secondary to the production that occurred within those buildings. Perhaps, this intent was not blatantly spoken; it was just the mindset of many academicians at the time.  We were to learn, recite, and produce. We were shackled to our seats. The physical environment (the classroom, building, campus, geography) was merely background noise to our larger educational environment.  

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As we sat in class, slivers of sunlight snuck into the room through small rectangular windows placed close to the ceiling. The humdrum sound of the fluorescent lights merged with the monotonous voice of my professor, creating an orchestral canon.  At times it became hypnotic to the point of exhaustion. During class breaks, I would leave the building or stand near the entryway observing the ecosystem of the campus. This was a reprieve from the monotony of the classroom, and yet I had to return. Upon returning to class, I reclaimed my seat and continued the exercise. I raised my hand. I recited facts and provided textual evidence. I spoke about the world, while the world transformed outside.

How do we provide our students with transformative moments? How do we move from boxes (classrooms, teaching praxis, budgetary limitations) into an intellectual space where our students can walk in the sunshine? 

In our pedagogy, we are constantly bombarded with a litany of “best practices,” ideas that are adopted by the masses to revolutionize how we teach.  These approaches are typically focused on improving metacognition within a traditional brick and mortar environment.  We access textbooks, classroom design, revitalize subject areas, and work to create inclusive classrooms. However, attention should also be paid to the way that we incorporate the world into our lessons. In other words, we are providing our students with a window seat out on the real world. This real-world exposure might come in the form of speakers, visits to the DeKalb Farmers Market, walks through the Old Fourth Ward, or conversations with local neighborhood planning units (NPUs). In this way, education is not delivered in isolation; rather these experiential events all complement the lessons that they learn in school. 


Furthermore, we are trying not only to transform minds; we want also to implement change. We want to provide students with the information and context so that they can transform their city. This context is part of the skill set they need to effectively revitalize the city. By providing our students with window seats onto the world, we can do this expeditiously. 

-- Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta faculty

-Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta Faculty

WHAT DO CATS, DOGS, AND STEAM HAVE IN COMMON?

STEAM.jpg

"What do cats, dogs, and STEAM have in common?" The beginning of this blog will sound like a riddle or a complete stretch to find the connection between the three. Instead of answering the question directly, I am going about it the roundabout way. If you want to know the answer, forward to the last paragraph of the blog. Be forewarned that the answer may just melt your mind.

The inspiration for this post comes from the Atlanta BeltLine bus tour that the Lab Atlanta faculty took last Friday. More specifically, it's inspired by public art pieces--like the graffiti found in the Krog Street Tunnel. 

Depending on who you are and the lens you wear, public art pieces such as graffiti evoke a spectrum of feelings: from inspiration to disgust. Nonetheless, they make you feel. If you google images for the Krog street tunnel, you will see a wealth of images of people embracing the art and even adding performance pieces to the art.  

You can even argue that this art is a product of an articulated problem in the tunnel. Try to imagine the tunnel without the art: dark, cold, even dangerous.  Potentially a magnet for crime. Hypothetically, the articulated problem could have been "How can we make the tunnel safer for people to travel on foot?" Thus, graffiti artists created "a public" there, by designing an art gallery not only to practice their craft, to display their work, to brighten up the environment, but also to solve the problem of safety in the tunnel.

From a visual arts perspective this tunnel graffiti could be categorized as public art. Here is where it gets interesting. Dig a little deeper. What do you see? Wear a different lens; say you are a chemist. What do you see? What you might see are the chemical and material properties of the paint reflecting a rich saturation of color, depending on the wavelength of light absorbed. Go even deeper and you can talk about the electrons and the physical and chemical bonds they share. Wear another lens--say a historical lens--and you could talk about when the tunnel was constructed, how it was originally used, and how it is currently being used. Dig deeper and you can open up the discussion to the neighborhoods and how the nearby area is developing. Wear the lens of an author and look at each piece of graffiti to research the story it tells, the emotions they invoke. Lastly, wear the lens of an international tourist. Compare and contrast the graffiti from home to the graffiti in the tunnel. What does it reflect about culture, diversity, core values?

Was it the intention of each artist to make you wonder about the story, chemical composition, global connection, and history of the tunnel? If it was, this is a very elegant design to the articulated problem of making the tunnel safer. By drawing attention to an otherwise bland item, you have prompted city officials to add more lighting in the tunnel. By creating images provoking a response, you have increased the number of attentive eyes in the tunnels. By adding splashes of color, you brighten up the environment. Naturally we don’t wear all these lenses at the same time. We may carry two or three; but to see it all is quite difficult, arduous, and time consuming. So the question remains: who does that?

By having dialogues between unlikely partners such as engineers and artists, the user benefits. Think back to being a kid and taking apart a radio, a toaster, or mixing the paints to see what happens. Did you know all the elements that went into the design of the radio? Did you know how a toaster worked? Did you know what color you were making? Even more paramount was the interplay between your choice of materials in the deconstructed items and the science behind the paints. Knowing the science behind the paints makes you a better painter. You can thus paint in more mediums, reach brighter colors and broader gradients--even evoking more feelings. By knowing how to make a toaster easier to use, engineers can be more efficient in designing for a broader population. The essence of STEAM education is that you are utilizing each different lens to see and share what you see in order to be effective learners and teachers. It is a truly interdisciplinary approach: not only to dig deeper into your own understanding, but to make stronger connections in the hopes of eliciting a natural curiosity about the world around you.


If you didn’t care for the middle of this blog, you are at the end, so you will probably want to start here to find the answer to the riddle. It’s a common saying that dogs and cats don’t get along. They are two different species with different traits and behaviors: very unlikely partners. STEM education serves as the bridge for likely partnerships between disciplines that are understood to connect. By simply adding an “A” (for "Arts") into the mix, you open up a new world incorporating partnerships between perspectives that wouldn’t naturally overlap: engineers and artists, authors and scientists, sociologists and biologists. These unlikely partnerships of dogs and cats are what we are building at Lab Atlanta, using principles in STEAM education to leverage all disciplines, so that our students not only hone and improve their crafts, but wear multiple lenses to reinvigorate their natural curiosity about the world.

Karl Hwang, Lab Atlanta faculty

ATLANTA ON THE GLOBAL STAGE: PERSPECTIVES FROM THE DANCE FLOOR AND THE BALCONY

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

While designing LAB ATL with the faculty team, Associate Director Mike Pardee often compares our curriculum work to Harvard Professor Ronald Heifetz’s principle of manifesting “binocular vision:” or seeing things from both the balcony and the dance floor at the same time. Heifetz’s idea is simple: in order to fully comprehend the world around us and affect what is happening in it, we need to see and understand it at both the macro and micro levels. This concept--as described in Heifetz’s masterfulLeadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading--nicely echoes LAB ATL’s goal for students to learn about and experience Atlanta from both the balcony and the dance floor, in order to build a sustainable, vibrant future for themselves and our city. From the balcony, they will understand the forces, patterns, concepts, and big ideas that make Atlanta unique. From the dance floor, they will understand the perspectives, individual choices, communities, and connections that make Atlanta such a complex, exciting place.

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

Atlanta is particularly attractive to individuals with an international background or a global perspective. Over the years, they have reshaped the city’s image into a worldly, cosmopolitan metropolis. Forty years ago, less than 1% of the population in Atlanta and its environs was foreign-born; just a couple of years ago, The Atlanta Regional Commission estimated that close to 13.5% of Atlanta’s population was born outside the United States. Consequently, Atlanta is now home to more than 70 foreign consular and trade offices, and hosts over 3,000 international facilities. From the balcony perspective, this influx of people from all 5 continents has redefined most aspects of city living, creating rich networks of cultural, financial, and educational connections at both the international and regional levels. These waves of immigration have shaped new forces that move in novel ways, creating new problems and solving others. From the dance floor, the thousands of individuals who have spurred this renewed energy interact every day throughout the city in just as many different ways. These interactions are fascinating to observe: who are the “global” Atlantans? What do they do? Divining the how and the why of their present and future actions are fascinating puzzles to explore, in the context of a city whose incredibly rich history attests to its vastly diverse residents’ myriad hopes, resilience, and passions.

 

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

Photo credit: LAB ATL faculty, Agnes Browning

In 2016, Atlanta’s identity is both intensely southern and passionately global. This powerful combination makes LAB ATL a fantastic incubator for our students, an indicator of their potential, waiting to come alive. Our program introduces them to the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of our increasingly global environment. We also mentor them in understanding and finding their own voices to tackle the city’s challenges and to develop their own innate gifts and acquired skills. Atlanta has always been good at revealing people’s talents and giving them a chance to try--and to innovate, as long as they are willing to look at things from both the balcony and the dance floor at once.

EXPLORING "EXPLORING" AS WE LAUNCH LAB ATL

Photo Copyright Perry MCIntyre

Photo Copyright Perry MCIntyre

Lab Atlanta attracts explorers. It attracts minds who are curious, souls who are restless, and intrepid learners with a taste for adventure, their eyes trained on distant horizons. Our pioneering class of students fits this profile seamlessly, as do our founding faculty. Recent Field Notes posts here attest to our Lab Atlanta yen for exploring. Yet this thirsting for quests is hardly unique to us; for we follow proudly in a long, rich line of inveterate explorers.

Harvard professor John Stilgoe is among our inspiring exemplars in extolling exploration and keen observation. He writes eloquently about the virtues of exploring in his masterful meditation called Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places. “The explorer notices and ponders and notices,” Stilgoe notes. Nor is he being carelessly redundant by repeating “notices” here. Rather, he stresses the recursive nature of exploring and noticing. Really noticing entails “looking again”--and again: truly “re-specting” each other and our surroundings, quite intentionally. “The real focus of all my teaching is the necessity to get out and look around,” he confesses, “to see acutely, to notice, to make connections”. A similar commitment to honing our observational powers as “acute, mindful explorer(s)” motivates us all as we launch Lab Atlanta, too.


“Explorers quickly learn that exploring means sharpening all the senses, especially sight,” Stilgoe continues, evoking the famous cartoon by Christopher Pearse Cranch lampooning Ralph Waldo Emerson for his “transparent eyeball” conceit in his essay Nature.

Drawing by Christopher Pearse Cranch; Houghton Library at Harvard University (Public Domain)

Drawing by Christopher Pearse Cranch; Houghton Library at Harvard University (Public Domain)

Emerson was a Harvard alumnus himself, steeped in the liberal arts ideals of that esteemed institution. He was also a classical scholar, well familiar with the etymological origins and nuances of Latinate words. So Emerson might not be at all surprised by how Stilgoe glosses “exploring” in this passage from Outside Lies Magic: “Exploration is a liberal art, because it is an art that liberates, that frees, that opens away from narrowness. And it is fun.” Precisely. Liberating learning is fun. This realization drives us as we embark on co-creating Lab Atlanta. “Exploration encourages creativity, serendipity, invention,” Stilgoe concludes. And so will Lab Atlanta.

It seems fitting, then, to close here with an excerpt from one of our first LAB ATL students’ application essays, which aptly expresses this intrepid mindset: “I have always loved travel and learning about new places, and in the past couple years, I have really tried to explore different parts of Atlanta outside of where I live in Buckhead. I have fallen in love with this city and the many different layers and areas of it. Through familiarizing myself more with it, I have been able to look at both Atlanta and myself through a different lens.”


Exploration and close observation can have such profoundly transformative effects, enabling us to see ourselves, each other, and our city through new and different lenses. So, in order to develop civically engaged, design-minded leaders focused on building a vibrant and sustainable future for themselves and the city of Atlanta, that’s exactly how and where we will start.

The Multiple Layers of Atlanta

1993 Aerial View of Downtown Atlanta (Source: Georgia State University Archive)

1993 Aerial View of Downtown Atlanta (Source: Georgia State University Archive)

My first trip to Atlanta occurred during the summer before my senior year in high school. My parents agreed to let me stay with my aunt for a few months during the summer. I was excited. Ever since I was a child, I had this wanderlust to travel.  This was no doubt ignited by the weekend trips that my family made to Nashville, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Or it could have been ignited by the stories I heard of my parents’ vacations in New York. Their colorful descriptions of "the city that never sleeps," with all its pageantry and extravagance, excited me. I wanted to see more. I wanted to know more.

So the thought of immersing myself in a new place excited me.  This was the summer of 1993.  The downtown district was busy and bustling. The groundbreaking on the Centennial Olympic Stadium had just taken place. The Atlanta Housing Authority had just been granted the first HOPE VI pilot grant, which would initiate a new era of urban revitalization in the city. The city was changing, evolving. Once I disembarked the bus that my parents had placed me on eight hours earlier, I collected my luggage and awaited the arrival of my aunt.  As I exited the Greyhound station and walked towards International Boulevard, I looked around at the bustling cars. There was a congregation of people flooding the streets. The variations were striking. There were blue collar workers, white collar executives, children, parents, and tourists abounding. The sight of this activity thrilled me and created all types of wonder in my adolescent mind.  It also ignited me with curiosity.

Throughout the summer I would take weekly trips into the city. I would walk blocks alone, observing people and looking at structures.  I would visit local venues and watch as these social actors transformed ordinary public space into their theatre.  On other occasions, I would catch the MARTA and ride the train from one end the next. Always watching. Always jotting down mental notes.  

Yesterday, my colleagues and I embarked on a similar adventure. We boarded a train from Lindbergh and traveled southward to Downtown Atlanta.  As we entered the train marked AIRPORT, we took our seats and joined the congregation of commuters, business people, college students, transients, and everyday people making their way through this complicated network of urbanity. We talked. We laughed. We watched as the train speedily pushed forward. We disembarked at Peachtree Center and rode the steep Westinghouse escalators upward towards the street. This escalator trudged upwards as the darkness of the station was replaced by sunlight emanating from the street. We had arrived.

As we stepped off the escalator and walked onto Peachtree Street, I was reminded of my first trip to Atlanta so many years ago.  Our feet walked in staccato-paced steps as we inserted our bodies into the moving notes of the symphonic streets. The city wasn’t as vibrant as it felt that warm day in 1993. It was different.  The people we encountered were moving in the same hurried manner of their predecessors, but they were headed to distinct places: Georgia State University, Centennial Olympic Park, CNN Center, or the restaurant strips that painted Peachtree Street. I considered the past and present status of the city and wondered what the future held.  The monuments of the city cast shadows over us, as we crossed the street and made our way down Auburn Avenue.

-- Aretina Hamilton, Lab Atlanta faculty

"Making Publics" By and With Students

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Lab Atlanta faculty had the pleasure of hosting two phenomenal educators to work with us this past week: Diana Laufenberg, Executive Director of Inquiry Schools, and Carl Di Salvo, from Georgia Tech’s Public Design Workshop. Each week as we proceed, the pieces of the puzzles that make up Lab Atlanta continue to fall more auspiciously into place. Ms. Laufenberg issued a wonderful reminder to us in the design process to prioritize student learning over merely "schooling." In other words: to design units of learning to be done “by and with students” instead of “to and for students.”

Dr. Di Salvo visited us next to explicate the intricate process of public design, emphasizing the importance of creating and empowering “publics”--or communities of common interest formed around salient issues. He also shared his vision of a more grounded, circumscribed expectation for the outputs of public designers. Public designers work to uncover vexing issues, propose solutions, and create prototypes to solve “wicked problems.” But designers are not necessarily obliged to actually carry out those plans, DiSalvo notes. To illustrate, he used the instructive analogy of the process of designing a cup. Each physical characteristic of the cup (size, shape, color, etc.) would be the responsibility of the designer, but the actual fabrication of the cup would be left to a manufacturer. We often expect too much from public designers and their blueprints, he observes, while the construction of products and execution of ideas is often better left to others later on in the creative process.

As we move forward with our own instructional design processes, we enjoy a great deal of support and enthusiasm for our program from our national and local community partners, like Diana and Carl. This encouragement has helped us to craft the Lab Atlanta semester as an innovative and creative set of interdisciplinary modules, alternating between experiential projects and inquiry-based seminars. As Diana put it, we are in the enviable position to really think outside the box. Coming mostly from traditional classrooms and conventional methods of planning and preparing ourselves, we are all looking forward to envisioning new ways of doing things. By maximizing the learning opportunities of our being in the heart of Midtown Atlanta, we can design experiential modules immersed in the issues pervading our city. To really get “outside the box” in these ways, we need to continue finding this sweet spot between learning and school. As each week goes by, we remain inspired by the abundant instructional resources we share, our talented faculty colleagues, and the generous runway we have, in the words of Sir Ken Robinson, “to create a culture for valuable learning.”