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TEDGlobal 2010

Emily Pilloton: Teaching design for change

July 16, 2010

Designer Emily Pilloton moved to rural Bertie County, in North Carolina, to engage in a bold experiment of design-led community transformation. She's teaching a design-build class called Studio H that engages high schoolers' minds and bodies while bringing smart design and new opportunities to the poorest county in the state.

Emily Pilloton - Humanitarian design activist
Emily Pilloton wrote Design Revolution, a book about 100-plus objects and systems designed to make people's lives better. In 2010, her design nonprofit began an immersive residency in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in the state. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So this is a story
00:16
of a place that I now call home.
00:18
It's a story of public education
00:20
and of rural communities
00:23
and of what design might do to improve both.
00:25
So this is Bertie County,
00:28
North Carolina, USA.
00:30
To give you an idea of the "where:"
00:32
So here's North Carolina, and if we zoom in,
00:34
Bertie County is in the eastern part of the state.
00:36
It's about two hours east
00:39
driving-time from Raleigh.
00:41
And it's very flat. It's very swampy.
00:43
It's mostly farmland.
00:45
The entire county
00:47
is home to just 20,000 people, and they're very sparsely distributed.
00:49
So there's only 27 people per square mile,
00:52
which comes down to about 10 people
00:54
per square kilometer.
00:56
Bertie County is kind of a prime example
00:58
in the demise of rural America.
01:01
We've seen this story all over the country
01:03
and even in places beyond the American borders.
01:06
We know the symptoms.
01:09
It's the hollowing out of small towns.
01:11
It's downtowns becoming ghost towns.
01:13
The brain drain --
01:15
where all of the most educated and qualified leave and never come back.
01:17
It's the dependence on farm subsidies
01:20
and under-performing schools
01:22
and higher poverty rates in rural areas
01:24
than in urban.
01:26
And Bertie County is no exception to this.
01:28
Perhaps the biggest thing it struggles with,
01:30
like many communities similar to it,
01:32
is that there's no
01:34
shared, collective investment
01:36
in the future of rural communities.
01:38
Only 6.8 percent of all our philanthropic giving in the U.S. right now
01:40
benefits rural communities,
01:43
and yet 20 percent of our population lives there.
01:45
So Bertie County is not only very rural; it's incredibly poor.
01:48
It is the poorest county in the state.
01:51
It has one in three of its children living in poverty,
01:53
and it's what is referred to as a "rural ghetto."
01:56
The economy is mostly agricultural.
01:59
The biggest crops are cotton and tobacco,
02:02
and we're very proud of our Bertie County peanut.
02:04
The biggest employer is the Purdue chicken processing plant.
02:07
The county seat is Windsor.
02:10
This is like Times Square of Windsor that you're looking at right now.
02:12
It's home to only 2,000 people,
02:15
and like a lot of other small towns
02:17
it has been hollowed out over the years.
02:19
There are more buildings that are empty or in disrepair
02:21
than occupied and in use.
02:24
You can count the number of restaurants in the county
02:26
on one hand --
02:28
Bunn's Barbecue being my absolute favorite.
02:30
But in the whole county there is no coffee shop,
02:32
there's no Internet cafe,
02:34
there's no movie theater, there's no bookstore.
02:36
There isn't even a Walmart.
02:38
Racially, the county
02:40
is about 60 percent African-American,
02:42
but what happens in the public schools
02:44
is most of the privileged white kids
02:46
go to the private Lawrence Academy.
02:48
So the public school students
02:50
are about 86 percent African-American.
02:52
And this is a spread from the local newspaper of the recent graduating class,
02:54
and you can see the difference is pretty stark.
02:57
So to say that the public education system
03:00
in Bertie County is struggling
03:02
would be a huge understatement.
03:04
There's basically no pool
03:06
of qualified teachers to pull from,
03:08
and only eight percent of the people in the county
03:10
have a bachelor's degree or higher.
03:12
So there isn't a big legacy
03:14
in the pride of education.
03:16
In fact, two years ago,
03:18
only 27 percent of all the third- through eighth-graders
03:20
were passing the state standard
03:22
in both English and math.
03:24
So it sounds like I'm painting a really bleak picture of this place,
03:27
but I promise there is good news.
03:30
The biggest asset, in my opinion,
03:33
one of the biggest assets in Bertie County right now is this man:
03:35
This is Dr. Chip Zullinger,
03:37
fondly known as Dr. Z.
03:39
He was brought in in October 2007
03:42
as the new superintendent
03:44
to basically fix this broken school system.
03:46
And he previously was a superintendent
03:48
in Charleston, South Carolina
03:50
and then in Denver, Colorado.
03:52
He started some of the country's first charter schools
03:54
in the late '80s in the U.S.
03:56
And he is an absolute renegade and a visionary,
03:59
and he is the reason that I now live and work there.
04:01
So in February of 2009,
04:06
Dr. Zullinger invited us, Project H Design --
04:08
which is a non-profit design firm that I founded --
04:11
to come to Bertie and to partner with him
04:13
on the repair of this school district
04:15
and to bring a design perspective to the repair of the school district.
04:17
And he invited us in particular
04:20
because we have a very specific
04:22
type of design process --
04:24
one that results in appropriate design solutions
04:26
in places that don't usually have access
04:29
to design services or creative capital.
04:31
Specifically, we use these six design directives,
04:33
probably the most important being number two:
04:36
we design with, not for --
04:38
in that, when we're doing humanitarian-focused design,
04:40
it's not about designing for clients anymore.
04:43
It's about designing with people,
04:46
and letting appropriate solutions emerge from within.
04:48
So at the time of being invited down there,
04:51
we were based in San Francisco,
04:53
and so we were going back and forth
04:55
for basically the rest of 2009,
04:57
spending about half our time in Bertie County.
04:59
And when I say we, I mean Project H,
05:01
but more specifically, I mean myself and my partner, Matthew Miller,
05:03
who's an architect and a sort of MacGyver-type builder.
05:06
So fast-forward to today, and we now live there.
05:10
I have strategically cut Matt's head out of this photo,
05:13
because he would kill me if he knew I was using it
05:15
because of the sweatsuits.
05:17
But this is our front porch. We live there.
05:19
We now call this place home.
05:21
Over the course of this year that we spent flying back and forth,
05:23
we realized we had fallen in love with the place.
05:26
We had fallen in love with the place and the people
05:28
and the work that we're able to do
05:31
in a rural place like Bertie County,
05:33
that, as designers and builders,
05:35
you can't do everywhere.
05:37
There's space to experiment
05:39
and to weld and to test things.
05:41
We have an amazing advocate in Dr. Zullinger.
05:43
There's a nobility of real, hands-on,
05:46
dirt-under-your-fingernails work.
05:49
But beyond our personal reasons for wanting to be there,
05:51
there is a huge need.
05:53
There is a total vacuum of creative capital in Bertie County.
05:55
There isn't a single licensed architect in the whole county.
05:58
And so we saw an opportunity
06:01
to bring design as this untouched tool,
06:03
something that Bertie County didn't otherwise have,
06:06
and to be sort of the -- to usher that in
06:09
as a new type of tool in their tool kit.
06:11
The initial goal became using design
06:14
within the public education system in partnership with Dr. Zullinger --
06:16
that was why we were there.
06:19
But beyond that, we recognized
06:21
that Bertie County, as a community,
06:23
was in dire need of a fresh perspective
06:25
of pride and connectedness
06:28
and of the creative capital
06:30
that they were so much lacking.
06:32
So the goal became, yes, to apply design within education,
06:34
but then to figure out how to make education
06:37
a great vehicle for community development.
06:39
So in order to do this, we've taken three different approaches
06:42
to the intersection of design and education.
06:44
And I should say that these are three things that we've done in Bertie County,
06:47
but I feel pretty confident that they could work
06:50
in a lot of other rural communities
06:52
around the U.S. and maybe even beyond.
06:54
So the first of the three is design for education.
06:57
This is the most kind of direct, obvious
07:00
intersection of the two things.
07:03
It's the physical construction
07:05
of improved spaces and materials and experiences
07:07
for teachers and students.
07:10
This is in response to the awful mobile trailers
07:12
and the outdated textbooks
07:15
and the terrible materials that we're building schools out of these days.
07:17
And so this played out for us in a couple different ways.
07:21
The first was a series of renovations of computer labs.
07:23
So traditionally, the computer labs,
07:26
particularly in an under-performing school like Bertie County,
07:28
where they have to benchmark test every other week,
07:31
the computer lab is a kill-and-drill
07:34
testing facility.
07:36
You come in, you face the wall, you take your test and you leave.
07:38
So we wanted to change the way that students approach technology,
07:41
to create a more convivial and social space
07:44
that was more engaging, more accessible,
07:47
and also to increase the ability for teachers
07:49
to use these spaces for technology-based instruction.
07:51
So this is the lab at the high school,
07:54
and the principal there is in love with this room.
07:56
Every time he has visitors, it's the first place that he takes them.
07:58
And this also meant the co-creation with some teachers
08:02
of this educational playground system
08:04
called the learning landscape.
08:06
It allows elementary-level students to learn core subjects
08:08
through game play and activity
08:11
and running around and screaming and being a kid.
08:13
So this game that the kids are playing here --
08:15
in this case they were learning basic multiplication
08:17
through a game called Match Me.
08:19
And in Match Me, you take the class, divide it into two teams,
08:21
one team on each side of the playground,
08:24
and the teacher will take a piece of chalk
08:26
and just write a number on each of the tires.
08:28
And then she'll call out a math problem --
08:30
so let's say four times four --
08:32
and then one student from each team has to compete
08:34
to figure out that four times four is 16
08:37
and find the tire with the 16 on it and sit on it.
08:39
So the goal is to have all of your teammates sitting on the tires
08:42
and then your team wins.
08:44
And the impact of the learning landscape
08:46
has been pretty surprising and amazing.
08:48
Some of the classes and teachers have reported higher test scores,
08:50
a greater comfort level with the material,
08:53
especially with the boys,
08:55
that in going outside and playing,
08:57
they aren't afraid to take on
08:59
a double-digit multiplication problem --
09:01
and also that the teachers are able
09:03
to use these as assessment tools
09:05
to better gauge how their students
09:07
are understanding new material.
09:09
So with design for education, I think the most important thing
09:11
is to have a shared ownership of the solutions with the teachers,
09:14
so that they have the incentive and the desire to use them.
09:17
So this is Mr. Perry. He's the assistant superintendent.
09:20
He came out for one of our teacher-training days
09:23
and won like five rounds of Match Me in a row and was very proud of himself.
09:26
(Laughter)
09:29
So the second approach is redesigning education itself.
09:32
This is the most complex.
09:35
It's a systems-level look
09:37
at how education is administered
09:39
and what is being offered and to whom.
09:41
So in many cases this is not so much about making change
09:43
as it is creating the conditions
09:46
under which change is possible
09:48
and the incentive to want to make change,
09:50
which is easier said than done in rural communities
09:52
and in inside-the-box education systems
09:55
in rural communities.
09:57
So for us, this was a graphic public campaign
10:00
called Connect Bertie.
10:02
There are thousands of these blue dots all over the county.
10:04
And this was for a fund that the school district had
10:07
to put a desktop computer and a broadband Internet connection
10:09
in every home
10:12
with a child in the public school system.
10:14
Right now I should say,
10:16
there are only 10 percent of the houses
10:18
that actually have an in-home Internet connection.
10:20
And the only places to get WiFi
10:22
are in the school buildings, or at the Bojangles Fried Chicken joint,
10:24
which I find myself squatting outside of a lot.
10:27
Aside from, you know, getting people excited
10:30
and wondering what the heck these blue dots were all over the place,
10:32
it asked the school system
10:36
to envision how it might become a catalyst
10:38
for a more connected community.
10:40
It asked them to reach outside of the school walls
10:42
and to think about how they could play a role
10:45
in the community's development.
10:47
So the first batch of computers
10:49
are being installed later this summer,
10:51
and we're helping Dr. Zullinger develop some strategies
10:53
around how we might connect the classroom and the home
10:56
to extend learning beyond the school day.
10:59
And then the third approach, which is what I'm most excited about,
11:01
which is where we are now,
11:03
is: design as education.
11:05
So "design as education" means
11:07
that we could actually teach design within public schools,
11:09
and not design-based learning --
11:12
not like "let's learn physics by building a rocket,"
11:14
but actually learning design-thinking
11:17
coupled with real construction and fabrication skills
11:20
put towards a local community purpose.
11:23
It also means that designers are no longer consultants,
11:26
but we're teachers,
11:28
and we are charged with growing creative capital
11:30
within the next generation.
11:32
And what design offers as an educational framework
11:34
is an antidote
11:37
to all of the boring, rigid, verbal instruction
11:39
that so many of these school districts are plagued by.
11:41
It's hands-on, it's in-your-face,
11:43
it requires an active engagement,
11:45
and it allows kids to apply all the core subject learning
11:47
in real ways.
11:50
So we started thinking
11:52
about the legacy of shop class
11:54
and how shop class -- wood and metal shop class in particular --
11:56
historically, has been something
11:59
intended for kids who aren't going to go to college.
12:01
It's a vocational training path.
12:03
It's working-class; it's blue-collar.
12:05
The projects are things like,
12:07
let's make a birdhouse for your mom for Christmas.
12:09
And in recent decades, a lot of the funding for shop class
12:12
has gone away entirely.
12:14
So we thought, what if you could bring back shop class,
12:16
but this time orient the projects
12:19
around things that the community needed,
12:21
and to infuse shop class
12:24
with a more critical and creative-design-thinking studio process.
12:26
So we took this kind of nebulous idea
12:29
and have worked really closely with Dr. Zullinger for the past year
12:31
on writing this as a one-year curriculum
12:34
offered at the high school level to the junior class.
12:37
And so this starts in four weeks,
12:39
at the end of the summer,
12:41
and my partner and I, Matthew and I,
12:43
just went through the arduous and totally convoluted process
12:45
of getting certified as high school teachers to actually run it.
12:48
And this is what it looks like.
12:50
So over the course of two semesters,
12:52
the Fall and the Spring,
12:54
the students spend three hours a day every single day
12:56
in our 4,500 square foot
12:58
studio/shop space.
13:00
And during that time, they're doing everything
13:03
from going out and doing ethnographic research and doing the need-finding,
13:06
coming back into the studio,
13:08
doing the brainstorming and design visualization
13:10
to come up with concepts that might work,
13:12
and then moving into the shop and actually testing them,
13:14
building them, prototyping them,
13:16
figuring out if they are going to work and refining that.
13:18
And then over the summer, they're offered a summer job.
13:21
They're paid as employees of Project H
13:24
to be the construction crew with us
13:26
to build these projects in the community.
13:28
So the first project, which will be built next summer,
13:30
is an open-air farmers' market downtown,
13:33
followed by bus shelters for the school bus system in the second year
13:37
and home improvements for the elderly in the third year.
13:40
So these are real visible projects
13:43
that hopefully the students can point to and say,
13:45
"I built that, and I'm proud of it."
13:47
So I want you to meet three of our students.
13:49
This is Ryan.
13:51
She is 15 years old.
13:53
She loves agriculture and wants to be a high school teacher.
13:55
She wants to go to college, but she wants to come back to Bertie County,
13:58
because that's where her family is from, where she calls home,
14:00
and she feels very strongly about giving back
14:03
to this place that she's been fairly fortunate in.
14:05
So what Studio H might offer her
14:08
is a way to develop skills
14:10
so that she might give back in the most meaningful way.
14:12
This is Eric. He plays for the football team.
14:14
He is really into dirtbike racing,
14:17
and he wants to be an architect.
14:20
So for him, Studio H offers him
14:22
a way to develop the skills he will need as an architect,
14:24
everything from drafting to wood and metal construction
14:27
to how to do research for a client.
14:30
And then this is Anthony.
14:32
He is 16 years old, loves hunting and fishing and being outside
14:34
and doing anything with his hands,
14:37
and so for him, Studio H means
14:39
that he can stay interested in his education
14:41
through that hands-on engagement.
14:43
He's interested in forestry, but he isn't sure,
14:45
so if he ends up not going to college,
14:47
he will have developed some industry-relevant skills.
14:49
What design and building really offers to public education
14:52
is a different kind of classroom.
14:54
So this building downtown,
14:56
which may very well become the site of our future farmers' market,
14:58
is now the classroom.
15:01
And going out into the community and interviewing your neighbors
15:03
about what kind of food they buy
15:05
and from where and why --
15:07
that's a homework assignment.
15:09
And the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the end of the summer
15:11
when they have built the farmers' market and it's open to the public --
15:14
that's the final exam.
15:16
And for the community, what design and building offers
15:18
is real, visible, built progress.
15:21
It's one project per year,
15:23
and it makes the youth the biggest asset
15:25
and the biggest untapped resource
15:27
in imagining a new future.
15:29
So we recognize that Studio H, especially in its first year,
15:32
is a small story --
15:35
13 students, it's two teachers,
15:37
it's one project in one place.
15:40
But we feel like this could work in other places.
15:42
And I really, strongly believe in the power of the small story,
15:44
because it is so difficult
15:47
to do humanitarian work at a global scale.
15:49
Because, when you zoom out that far,
15:52
you lose the ability to view people as humans.
15:54
Ultimately, design itself is a process
15:58
of constant education
16:00
for the people that we work with and for
16:02
and for us as designers.
16:04
And let's face it, designers, we need to reinvent ourselves.
16:06
We need to re-educate ourselves around the things that matter,
16:09
we need to work outside of our comfort zones more,
16:12
and we need to be better citizens in our own backyard.
16:15
So while this is a very small story,
16:18
we hope that it represents a step in the right direction
16:20
for the future of rural communities
16:23
and for the future of public education
16:25
and hopefully also for the future of design.
16:27
Thank you.
16:29
(Applause)
16:31

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Emily Pilloton - Humanitarian design activist
Emily Pilloton wrote Design Revolution, a book about 100-plus objects and systems designed to make people's lives better. In 2010, her design nonprofit began an immersive residency in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in the state.

Why you should listen

As a young designer, Emily Pilloton was frustrated by the design world's scarcity of meaningful work. Even environmentally conscious design was not enough. "At graduate school, people were starting to talk more about sustainability, but I felt it lacked a human factor," she said. "Can we really call $5,000 bamboo coffee tables sustainable?" Convinced of the power of design to change the world, at age 26 Pilloton founded Project H to help develop effective design solutions for people who need it most.

Her book Design Revolution features products like the Hippo Water Roller, a rolling barrel with handle that eases water transport; AdSpecs, adjustable liquid-filled eyeglasses; and Learning Landscapes, low-cost playgrounds that mesh math skills and physical activity.

In February 2009, Pilloton and her Project H partner Matthew Miller began working in Bertie County, North Carolina, the poorest and most rural county in the state, to develop a design-build curriculum for high-school kids, called Studio H. In August 2010 they began teaching their first class of 13 students. Read about their experiences in Design Mind.

The original video is available on TED.com
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