What if eighth-graders reinvented the classroom?

Tools at Schools, an award-winning design-education initiative, enlisted real-life kids to remake desks and other classroom furniture to better suit their needs. Their designs will soon be on view at at New York's Museum of Art and Design.

As the school season starts and students begin spilling into classrooms, the concept of improving the design of physical learning environments is likely on the minds of kids, teachers, administrators, and parents. Usually, discussions around the future of the classroom involve new technologies, such as tablet computers (in lieu of paper books), virtual frog dissections, or distance learning via video streaming. But what about improving essential classroom elements such as desks, chairs, and lockers?

And what would a junior high-school kid wish to be redesigned, to help him be more productive and engaged during classes?

A design-education project called Tools at Schools has been gaining attention not only for its thought-provoking concept of enlisting real-life eighth-graders to reinvent classroom furniture, but also for its effectiveness at illustrating how creative thinking can be taught to achieve practical results.

Tools at Schools, which will be the subject of a month-long exhibition at the Museum of Art and Design in New York starting October 6, first made waves at the 2011 International Contemporary Furniture Fair (ICFF), a high-profile annual design trade show, in May. There, the initiative won an ICFF Editors' Award, and was praised by trend-watching consultancy PSFK as "the highlight of the 2011 International Contemporary Furniture Fair." The Tools at Schools project is a collaboration between design consultancy Ariluden and Bernhardt Design, a furniture manufacturer. They enlisted 44 eighth-graders at The School at Columbia University to create furnishings for their ideal classroom.

The students researched what their peers wanted in terms of school furniture, sketched out their ideas, created 3D computer models and physical mock-ups, and learned about appropriate materials and manufacturing techniques. Their prototypes then were made public at ICFF.

Here's a video featuring some of the students:

Brightly hued and featuring simple silhouettes, the furniture that the eighth-graders designed offer inventive touches such as built-in handles and racks for books (or a laptop or tablet) in the chairs, and a curvy tray to hold supplies and a backpack hook on the desks.

The Tools at Schools furniture initiative made its debut less than a year after furniture maker Steelcase, in collaboration with design consultancy IDEO, unveiled its own reinvention of the classroom desk. Called the Node chair, it launched in June 2010 at another high-profile furniture trade show, the annual NeoCon World Trade Fair in Chicago. The Node chair, which is set atop a wheeled base that contains a basket for school supplies, won an Innovation Award at that event. Steelcase has said that 5,000 pre-orders for the desk flooded in two months after it made its debut.

Some elements of the Node chair are similar to those found in the Tools for Schools pieces, suggesting trends in new desk design:

  • Smooth, brightly-colored seating surfaces (for comfort and aesthetics)
  • Easy portability for today's classrooms, in which students move around to collaborate with different groups rather than remain static and listen to lectures
  • Built-in storage (to keep school books, computing equipment, and other possessions close at hand)

Photo: Tools at Schools

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com