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Audacious by Design: Project H Reinvents Hands-On Learning

Project H gives kids tools, skills, and confidence.

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This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

This article appeared in Make: Vol. 40.

Berkeley, California’s Project H offers a window into the future of K-12 education. And if it’s not the future, it should be. Just don’t call it a shop class.

Architect Emily Pilloton founded Project H out of a desire to do something more meaningful with her skills. That desire grew into a mission to offer kids the opportunity to explore what they can do with both their minds and their hands. Project H aims to use “the power of creativity, design, and hands-on building to amplify the raw brilliance of youth, transform communities, and improve K-12 public education from within.”

In a unique partnership with Berkeley’s progressive REALM charter school, Project H offers a design and build curriculum called Studio H for middle and high school students. While students learn to use radial saws, laser cutters, and welding torches, Pilloton hopes the confidence and self-knowledge they develop become a transformative force in their lives and communities. She also spearheaded a build camp for girls called Camp H.

We spoke to Pilloton about Project H (“Humanity, Happiness, Health, and Habitats,”) and her work.

What is Project H?
Project H is a nonprofit design organization that I started in 2008. It was founded on the loose idea that design can make people’s lives better and, more specifically, it can be audacious. It can be focused on social issues and it can excite young people in a way — inside and outside of school — that is meaningful to them, is meaningful to their communities, and that helps them bring ideas to life in ways that they maybe didn’t think were possible.

The documentary If You Build It highlights Project H’s experience in North Carolina. Can you summarize your experience there?
In 2009 we got cold emailed from a school superintendent in Greenville, N.C.: Dr. Chip Zullinger. He had seen a project we did called the Learning Landscape, which is an educational playground system. There are about 40 of them built around the world. They’re made from reclaimed tires, and you can play academic games within this playground, so it’s an outdoor playground, a classroom, and a dynamic space for elementary and middle school education.

Dr. Zullinger had seen that project published in a design publication and invited us to come down and basically bring design as a resource to his school district, which was broken. It was one of the poorest performing in the state, and he was on this mission to change it and to use resources that the district hadn’t traditionally been looking at, like design, to infuse a new kind of change and excitement for the kids and the teachers.

So we went down there, built four of these playgrounds in four days, and then discovered that Dr. Zullinger was this amazing renegade of an educational leader and had a whole list of other projects for us. To make a long story very short, we discovered a real love for Bertie County and for working with Dr. Zullinger. At a certain point, we just felt like we had to put design in the classroom and that the only real way to influence a school district using design is for it to be part of the academic experience of the students.

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How did the partnership with REALM Charter School come about?
As we were realizing our tenure in Bertie County was not going to be as long lasting as we thought it might, for a whole host of reasons, I had been in conversation with Victor Diaz, founder and executive director of REALM [Revolutionary Education and Learning Movement] charter school. REALM’s charter is written around project-based learning and creativity and design, so he had reached out to me, after having heard about Project H through a mutual friend.

We knew that REALM was a place not only where our ideas would be rallied around, but that it would also be a place for us to grow, thrive, and try new things and experiment and push the boundaries of what Project H could be.

We’re in our second year at REALM, and we have 216 students in 8th, 9th, 10th, and 11th grade. We’re building the school library. We built a classroom out of shipping containers last year. We’re deploying geodesic domes around the city — just all kinds of crazy stuff. And I also started an after-school and over-the-summer girl’s camp called Camp H for 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th graders.

It’s just an amazing school community to be a part of, where we can really push on our own practice, and see how much of this really works in the tight constraints of an urban public charter school with a very unique school population.

We’re in Berkeley, but most of our kids come from Richmond and Oakland, and a lot of them are English language learners. There’s a high percentage of special education students, so we really see it as an amazing opportunity to offer something different to kids looking for or needing something different from their school.

What personal experiences helped shape the creation of Project H?
Project H grew out of my own dissatisfaction with the status quo and just being really sick of doing work that wasn’t meaningful to me and that didn’t seem to be meaningful to anyone else. In the greater sense, the usual client-designer relationship is often based on luxury, money, privilege, and not that that’s a bad thing necessarily, but for me the thing that got me excited about design as a kid — and more specifically about architecture — was the problem solving, the kind of MacGyver-style eagerness of solving a problem in the moment under tight constraints. I love being constrained — having $10, one hand tied behind my back, and being blindfolded, having nothing and making something beautiful out of that.

I grew up in an extremely affluent, mostly white neighborhood, and as a woman of color, I experienced my childhood with the lens of not belonging and having to really forge my own way to make meaning. The way I did that was often through very physical and tactile means, through building, exploring in the forest, and competitive sports.

Project H was kind of just an extension of feeling dissatisfied in my own career, knowing there was a different way to do it, not knowing how to do it, but thinking that if I set up a nonprofit and have to answer to the IRS and the Secretary of the State in California, then I’m going to figure it out and I have to.

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How is it funded?
Project H is funded through a revolving and always evolving jigsaw puzzle of private foundation grants, the National Endowment for the Arts, and some public funding, as well as corporate sponsorships, inkind donations of tools, materials, and equipment, and a broad base of either crowdfunded or small-scale donations that are more project-based.

How is Project H different from a traditional shop class?
Vocational education was born out of the trades, out of needing to train the next generation of workers for specific skill sets — masons, welders, etc. — and unfortunately in a lot of communities (we saw this in Bertie County), vocational education was a track intended mostly for kids who were not college-bound. And in a place like Bertie County, that often meant the black kids, so vocational ed became this weird fulcrum that really divided a lot of kids into the high-performing kids (often the white kids), the affluent kids that were going on to college, and then the rest of them. And as a class, vocational education has been based mostly on skills rather than critical thinking about why we’re using those skills in the first place.

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The tag line for Studio H is “design, build, transform.” So while vocational education has traditionally only been focused on the build portion — like how we train the next generation of brick masons — we really believe that no kid should build anything that they have not designed themselves, and no kid should build anything that doesn’t have some kind of meaning for a community beyond themselves.

In other words, I’m never going to hand a kid a set of drawings and say go build this birdhouse. I say birdhouse because we have built birdhouses in my girl’s camp, but every girl designs their own birdhouse with a very specific bird in mind, and it’s intended to be placed in a specific ecosystem for the benefit of a local community garden.

There’s a way to still teach those skills, but to infuse meaning for the person building it, and then also for the community in which it exists. I think that shop classes in the future, Studio H included, are going to be less about trades and less about skill building and more about meaning, personal voice, and the community — what we’re building, why, for whom, and why it’s an extension of our own ideas. That’s the difference.

The other thing I would say is that most people think of shop classes as really low-tech, like here’s a chisel and a saw. We have all those things, and our students know how to use the most basic old school hand planes, but we also have a laser cutter. We use CNC technology, and there’s really no difference. I don’t think one is more important than the other.

We did these laser-etched skateboards that had to be pressed in a 20,000-pound bottle jack press that we welded out of steel. And we had to use a band saw and a table saw and a router to cut them, and then we laser-etched them, and every single step of that, the low tech and the high tech were just as important.

What do you say to parents who wonder why their kids are learning “blue collar” skills?
I ask them, “Well, are they really?” Because they just went to Carl Bass’ shop, the CEO of Autodesk, and saw a crazy CNC router that exists nowhere else in the country. I don’t see them as blue-collar skills necessarily. I think what we are teaching kids is the broadest array of skills they could possibly imagine, so that when they wake up one morning and they say “I want to build a skyscraper that goes from here to the moon,” they feel like, “OK, I’ve got 50 tools that I know how to use to at least see if that’s possible.” I don’t think they are blue-collar skills so much as the agency to pull from a wide variety of tools to make anything possible.

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How does Project H engage girls in traditional male-oriented activities?
Camp H, which is the after-school and summer girls’ program, is really my baby. It’s the thing for me that feels really personal, really special, and really intimate because I remember being a 10-year-old misfit girl and being really good at math and being really good at a lot of things and still feeling like I didn’t belong and that it wasn’t cool to know how to do stuff. No girl should have to feel like they have to dumb themselves down or hide their brilliance, and nothing against boys, but it’s kind of ballsy for a 10-year-old girl to leave our camp saying, “I just learned how to weld” and there are boys around going “What? How come we didn’t get to do that?” I love that.

I think pulling girls out of the coed class into a girl’s-only space, they just have a totally different way that they approach making when there’s no social tension around it, there’s no “oh it looks like the boys go first” — they all pick up a welder and weld you under a table. They become much more confident and then they carry that confidence back into everything else.

So I have also been really intentional about doing things that are not in any way girlie. We will not be making jewelry boxes. I am not going to paint a drill pink. I am not going to give them the girl version of the toolbox. They weld with the same Lincoln Electric welder that our high school students use. I want them to feel like they are equals.

What do you hope kids get out of Project H?
I really want every kid to leave Project H thinking “I can’t believe that was even possible and I really can’t believe that we pulled it off” because that sense of agency and that sense of power, and the sense of confidence that going through your life anything is not only possible but totally achievable, that’s what these kids need at this age.

I see it in my camp girls after they weld. These are 9-year-old girls who weld and fuse metal and they leave feeling like “I just fused metal — don’t you dare tell me there’s something I can’t do.” I love that. I love giving kids a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, but in a positive way.


 

Project H shares lesson plans and activities on their site
They write, “By open-sourcing our own learning, our failures, our adaptations, and our content, we hope to create a more transparent and boundary-pushing community of educators and creatives.”Here are a few examples.
See them all at projecthdesign.org/toolbox.

Rock Climbing Hand Holds
Use the architecture of the human hand to make wall-mountable hand holds using a traditional sculpting, molding, and casting process.
Right-Angle Birdhouses
Learn all the basic woodshop tools by building a unique, 90°-based wooden birdhouse.
Constructed Signage
Develop the capacity for seeing potential, develop and practice collaboration, and foster ownership through action.

Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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