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Rethinking the high-school shop class to rev up local economies

In the poorest county in North Carolina, high-school students learn about business by designing, building, and opening a sleek farmer's market pavilion as part of Studio H's innovative curriculum--which could be adapted around the country
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Written by Reena Jana on

It sounds like the plot of a feel-good television movie: take a group of ten 17-year-old high school juniors in one of the poorest rural communities in America and team them up with an energetic, high-profile young designer. Together, they build from scratch a sleek, 2,000-square-foot pavilion where local farmers can sell their fruits and vegetables. The local economy gets a jolt! The kids learn marketable skills! Cue the happy music; everyone hugs and smiles, and the credits roll.

This is a true story, though. And, luckily, one that can serve as a replicable, real-life model for how design can play a role in improving high-school education to help encourage teens to pursue careers in fields such as engineering. Such a model could also potentially create new jobs in hard-hit areas in the United States.

The story unfolds in Bertie County, North Carolina, where 23.5% of the population lives below the poverty line, according to City-Data.com's latest figures (2009); for context, consider that nationally, the poverty rate (one of the lowest in years) is currently 15.1%, according to U.S. Census data. Bertie County is also the site of an ambitious educational initiative called Studio H. It's a re-boot of the traditional shop class, as imagined and executed by Project H Design, a non-profit founded by Emily Pilloton. She's a rising star in design circles who has appeared on "The Colbert Report" and speaks at high-profile conferences such as TED Global and PopTech.

Pilloton and her Studio H co-founder, Matthew Miller, teach public high school students how to design and build working structures, like the sleek open-air farmer's market pavilion that opened on October 1 in the town of Windsor (population just under 2000) in Bertie County. Over the last ten months, the students have earned school credits (toward high-school graduation requirements and at a local college to get a head start on their higher educations) as well as payment for their efforts during the summer. In the process, they are gaining marketable skills, from how to use software programs such as AutoCAD to physical welding. Pilloton and Miller are also coaching them on creative and analytical thinking, as well as how to budget their projects, evaluate their ideas for feasibility, and present their concepts to potential clients and co-workers.

The four months of planning and building the Windsor Super Market, as the new structure is called, didn't always follow a feel-good storyline. "There was no 'Oprah' moment - there wasn't a lot of sitting back and reveling in sweet moments with our students or standing back and sighing as we gazed upon what we were constructing," said Pilloton in an e-mail. "It was physically and emotionally exhausting - we worked all day every day in 114 heat-index heat. But once it was done, when we finally took a breath, we realized just how much our students had changed, had grown, and how proud they were of what they had built."

At the opening of the pavilion on October 1, Kerron, one of the students enrolled in the Studio H program, proudly stood before a crowd of 100 local residents and the farmers who now have a new place to sell their offerings. He told them that "in 10 or 20 years, I want to come back here with my kids and tell them that I built this."  Kerron was one of the quietest in the class.

"He talked about seeing the world differently, feeling pride, and learning hard and soft skills that will help him in the future," said Pilloton, adding that he told her that he wants to be an engineer.

Studio H makes its curriculum available for free, online. Pilloton and Miller plan to bring the initiative to other parts of the nation, which could be adapted in other rural areas. The curriculum seems as if it could also be adapted in urban settings, too.

Although the numbers may seem small in terms of foot traffic to the Windsor Super Market, the impact of the initiative could pay off in terms of encouraging high school students to pursue engineering (like Kerron) and take an interest in playing a role in improving their local economies.

Perhaps the best evidence is watching the students themselves describe what they learned in the Studio H classroom--a more "feel-good" experience than any television movie could offer:

Related on SmartPlanet:

Saving the world, one design at a time (Q & A with Emily Pilloton)

What if eighth-graders reinvented the classroom?

Images: used with permission of Project H Design

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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