Designing a More Connected World

It has become increasingly clear that youths’ experiences in schools do not match the kinds of experiences they are likely to have once they have completed school. The push to support “21st century” skills stems from this mismatch, and many have advocated for ensuring that young people learn to think about the world not as a simple set of cause-and-effect experiences, but rather as a set of complex systems.

I and a team of colleagues decided to explore the possibilities of enhancing youths’ systems thinking through powerful learning principles found in design. What we came up with is a series of modular toolkits, designed to be used by classroom teachers or out-of-school educators, that leverage youths’ interests in popular culture to inspire a greater level of engagement in systems thinking. These toolkits make up a new collection of curricula called “Interconnections: Understanding Systems through Digital Design.”

“Interconnections” is the culmination of an initiative that launched in 2010. With the financial support of the MacArthur Foundation and the help of additional partners like the National Writing Project, our group of educators from Indiana University’s Creativity Labs, Vanderbilt University, Institute of Play, and the Digital Youth Network spent three years making this a reality — writing, testing, and iterating curricula until a robust suite of activities to promote engagement in design and systems thinking emerged.

The first book in the collection, “Gaming the System: Designing with Gamestar Mechanic,” orients readers to the nature of games as systems and how to involve systems concepts in the design of effective games. “Script Changers: Digital Storytelling with Scratch” focuses on how stories offer an important lens for seeing the world as a series of systems and provides opportunities for young people to program animated stories about the systems around them. The two final books, “Short Circuits: Crafting e-Puppets with DIY Electronics” and “Soft Circuits: Crafting e-Fashion with DIY Electronics” enable youth to design interactive fashion and puppets using crafting materials and everyday electronics.

The design activities in the books encourage young people to figure things out, look for similar patterns and work together to ask questions and find answers across disciplines. The activities have been designed to invite young people to teach one another, because the act of playing and making products for each other (be they games, stories, or physical objects) places learning in a collaborative context. As youth engage in the task of understanding how to design and build the different digital projects in the curricula, their work and discussions manifest systems thinking concepts. And, all of this learning, playing and collaborating come about via challenges that offer a rich toolset of language arts literacy practices and a variety of science and social studies concepts infused with digital media.

Check out the series at MIT Press as well as the accompanying kits offered through SparkFun.com.

Guest blogger Kylie Peppler is an assistant professor of learning sciences and director of The Creativity Labs at Indiana University, Bloomington.