OAKLAND -- Park Day School's progressive curriculum has always followed the philosophy that children benefit from the experiential learning of being involved in their education on a very practical basis.
Using a developmental approach to teaching a wide range of skills and learning dispositions, the staff has used hands-on materials across the curriculum from kindergarten through eighth grade.
In answer to its desire to incorporate the principles of the maker movement and the strategies of design thinking, Park Day School has entered into a partnership with Harvard Graduate School of Education's Project Zero and the Abundance Foundation, bringing DesignME (design, make, engage) to all its students.
Ilya Pratt, a learning specialist at Park Day School, described the maker movement as a widespread response to the loss of the hands-on making of goods, as well as the corporate world's need for more engineers.
"They realize they don't have engineers that know how to work with materials and come to new things through exploration," she said.
Through DesignME, being piloted at Park Day School and Oakland International High School, students are exposed to methods for finding and solving real-world problems by constructing creative solutions to design challenges. John Orbon, a development and communications director and parent of three Park Day School students, recently observed a third-grade class' Friday Design Challenge in which students combined the study of movement and propulsion with the study of birds.
"Using very basic materials, like tape and drinking straws, the students had to get a bird across the room on a wire," he said. "The engagement and joy they had with the understanding of how the materials worked was a really wonderful thing. They were having great fun while doing science, technology, math and engineering."
The purpose behind DesignME is twofold. One is to investigate what's behind design thinking and making by developing activities to explore these themes within the regular curriculum while providing more opportunities for students to do more fabrication and engineering. Though research has been done on the high school level, this is the first program that addresses these concepts with elementary and middle school children.
The second purpose is collaboration, and Park Day School has partnered with other Temescal Learning Community schools -- Oakland International High School, Emerson School and Oakland Tech -- in sharing curriculum and documenting student work.
"Harvard believes very strongly in the effectiveness of having a group of teachers cross-grade and cross-discipline coming together to explore teaching," Pratt said.
Another important fit between DesignME and Park Day School's philosophy is helping children think about their place in the world. In design thinking, the object is not merely to design an object but to think about systems that affect a larger world, such as transportation or feeding the poor.
"We are building that agency in kids, a sense of social justice and their empathy," said Tom Little, the head of school at Park Day. "And so all those virtues we're incorporating into this program."
In middle school, students spend three months on a community action project and recently presented solutions to the problem of creating a cleaner environment around the school. In groups, they met with the community, did interviews, identified needs, brainstormed ideas and created a prototype, which each team then presented to their class, staff, school board members and representatives from the community.
"For me, the most exciting part was having all the seventh- and eighth-graders around their projects," Orbon said. "The engagement and focus on the topic was really so complete, they were into it, talking about their solutions."
Through DesignME, the school hopes to give students the skills and confidence to work with materials that demonstrate design thinking and the mindset of an engineer and to share this knowledge with other schools. "We're very excited about this program, and we feel as though it's at a pioneering point," Little said. "We're looking for collaboration to learn as much as we can."
Park Day School is at 360 42nd St. in Oakland; 510-653-0317, www.parkdayschool.org.