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Transform the world in shop class

By Emily Pilloton, Special to CNN
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Teaching design for change
  • Designer Emily Pilloton moved to a rural part of North Carolina to put her ideas into practice
  • Design offers students a chance to re-engage and transform the world, she says
  • Pilloton's Studio H project aims to reinvent shop class and infuse it with design thinking
  • Pilloton: Design can make education a vehicle for community improvement

Editors note: TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available on its website. Emily Pilloton is the author of "Design Revolution" and founder and executive director of Project H Design.

(CNN) -- I spent this morning in a woodshop, teaching teenagers how to prototype roof joists for public chicken coops. And not just any teenagers -- loud, unruly, secretly brilliant, very underprivileged teenagers.

How I ended up in this role -- a trained architect and designer working as a high school educator in the poorest county in North Carolina -- was a feat of serendipity, blind ambition, and the desire to bring together design, community building, and public education.

In July, I stood proudly -- and nervously -- on the stage at TED Global in Oxford, England, and told the story of Studio H, the high school curriculum my partner, Matthew Miller, and I had spent a year and a half developing and implementing in Bertie County, North Carolina. The idea was ambitious: Teach design, coupled with vocational shop class, at a high school level for one full year, then build a full-scale architectural community project alongside students the following summer.

Watch an interview with Emily Pilloton

In short, we believed we could bring back shop class, infuse it with design thinking, and build real community progress in a struggling rural place like Bertie County. Bertie has a total population of 20,000, with 27 people per square mile; one-third of the children live in poverty; and 95 percent of all public school students receive a free or reduced-rate lunch.

That TED talk, which I delivered with sincere passion, came with a tragic irony: As I told the story, I was unaware that wheels were in motion to oust both the visionary superintendent who first brought us to Bertie County and any programs he helped make possible (i.e. Studio H). The evening after my talk, in a state of post-TED euphoria, I heard the news from my partner, Matt: "Dr. Z is gone. And we might be too if we don't fight."

Redesigning education in rural areas

What followed was an emotional and political roller coaster that can only be described as Machiavellian.

It involved a school board which evicted us from the district-owned home we were living in, followed by accusations that we had forged our grant funding documents. One board member even asked me for my bank account info so she could check for herself that we had the money.

It involved pleading to the board while they not-so-subtly told us to scram, and eventually talking them into letting us stay on the condition that we would receive not one penny of support from the school district. In short, we "won."

What ultimately prevailed over the petty attacks from the school board was the fact that our 13 incoming students, all juniors, and their parents wanted nothing more than to see Studio H happen. When we rolled up the garage door to our Studio H shop space on the first day of school, August 11, we took a deep breath and welcomed the 13 young adults who would become some of the most impressive cohorts I've had the pleasure of working with. (We like to joke that we run a design firm with a gaggle of teenagers.) Dave Eggers' wish: Once upon a school

Over the course of the year, they'll learn everything from how to use a bandsaw and MIG welder to ethnographic research techniques, the Adobe Creative Suite, typography, hand drafting, and on-site construction management.

So far, we've completed our first project, "Design Bootcamp," in which students designed and built a set of graphic boards for a simple beanbag toss game. We're quickly progressing in the second project: designing and building public chicken coops to provide families and businesses with more sustainable food sources.

In the spring semester, we'll design a farmer's market pavilion, which will be built by the students, in partnership with the city and county, next summer. They will be paid as employees of our organization, Project H Design.

One of our students is a teenage mother. Others live in dilapidated trailers and depend on food stamps. Others are hunters or farmers. Most have parents who haven't been to college or graduated from high school. And yet the chance to learn by doing, to apply real hands-on skills to local projects, and to produce solutions for their communities that earn them respect as the changemakers of the future is unparalleled in their educational experience.

The sad truth is that many people, including teachers, school board members, and even parents, have in a sense given up on youth. In an aging community where politics rule education and the pool of qualified teachers is shallow, the kids get the short end of the stick. Jane McGonigal on how gaming can make a better world

What design can offer such public education systems is a chance to re-engage, and a chance for education -- and youth -- to become a vehicle for community improvement. And when that design is coupled with vocational skill development that improves economic opportunity and supports local trades, all the better.

This is what design is all about: growing creative capital in unexpected places, by the hands of underestimated individuals. I hope to see each and every Studio H student become a more critical, creative thinker, leave our program with industry-relevant skills, and take pride in the fact that the students have built meaningful infrastructure for their community.

Our motto used to be "Design can change the world." But in fact, the story is much smaller. Design is not about changing the world, necessarily, but creating the conditions in which change can occur and nurturing the desire and tools to make change happen.

Our new motto, which is printed on a billboard on a middle-of-nowhere stretch of Highway 17 coming into Bertie County, says it much better: "Design. Build. Transform."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Emily Pilloton.