A Jewish Design Lab for High School Students

Rabbi Charlie Schwartz

I am captivated by the idea of remix. Not just the musical definition, of sampling disparate musical tracks and recontextualizing them with new backbeats and vocals to create entirely new songs. Rather, the broader idea of remix: innovation deriving not from enigmatic strokes of genius but from the skillful copying and combining of pre-existing ideas into new creations. As Kohelet put it, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

This innovative approach is at the heart of the Brandeis Design Lab, a project of the Brandeis University's Office of High School Programs, Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Union for Reform Judaism, which teaches Design Thinking to high school students and educators across the Boston Jewish community. Scratch the surface of the Design Lab’s approach and you’ll find influences from community-based organizing, project based learning, service based learning and even shop class—a remix. But it is also something new, something powerful, a way to engage high school students in deep Jewish learning with their hearts, minds and hands.

At its core, the Design Lab brings together co- horts of high school students to solve a real world design challenge facing a local Jewish organiza- tion using a modified version of the Design Thinking process. (Design Thinking, also known as Human Centered Design, is a problem-solving framework used to capture the process of design firms like IDEO and Stanford’s d.school. Check out designkit.org and dschool.stanford.edu for more information and specifics for each stage of the process.) Past challenges have included transforming a dilapidated cemetery chapel into a duel use educational space/genizah sorting area, building a Reggio Emilia inspired playground that is steeped in Jewish values, and redesigning a prayer space in an assisted living facility to better meet the needs of its residents.

Design Lab challenges must meet five main criteria:

1.  The challenge must be awesome.
2.  The challenge must be feasible within the timeframe and skills we have available.
3.  There needs to be authentic Jewish learning incorporated into the challenge.
4.  The partner organization needs to understand the ranges of what the final product might be.
5. There needs to be a physical building element to the challenge.


As used by the Design Lab, Design Thinking fol- lows three main stages, with each stage containing several supplements:

1.   Explore: Listen | Empathize | Learn | Frame
2.  Prototype: Imagine | Brainstorm | Focus | Plan
3.  Make: Build | Test | Iterate | Sustain


The Explore stage has the Design Labers deeply immerse themselves in the challenge at hand. As part of listening and empathizing, we conduct interviews and observations of users and key stakeholders and learn from experts in whatever field we’re working in, including professional designers and architects, while studying Jewish texts and ideas that might provide insight into the challenge at hand. In this first stage, participants are asked to listen deeply to those with radically different life experiences and empathize, to try
to understand the lived experience of another person, through their interviews.

For the playground project, Design Labers inter- viewed parents, children and staff to get a deeper sense of the needs of the school. They watched videos and read articles on playground design and the pedagogy of Reggio Emilla and did text learning around Jewish ideas and values that are age appropriate for preschoolers. Similarly, during the cemetery project, Design Labers spoke to cemetery staff as well as clergy and recent mourners to get a deeper understanding of the space. This was followed by text learning around Jewish ideas of death and mourning. This activity pushes many of our Design Labers into their adolescent zones of proximal development—that is, it challenges them to think and learn in ways that are just within reach with proper support and scaffolding.

During the Explore stage, participants are asked to collect “data,” including ideas, quotes, images and inspirations as well as insights they have gleaned from interviews and observations. From this “data,” students develop their understanding of the users’ needs. Their insights often have deep impact on the framing of the challenge. During the cemetery chapel project, a Design Laber realized that the goal of the cemetery staff was to humanize the space. This led to the construction of a participatory chalk mural, where visitors write their hopes and dreams for their lives. In- terviews with parents and staff directed the team working on the playground project to integrate Jewish values within the playground. This insight informed the students’ plans and shaped the playground features, such as a balance beam that toddlers need to take turns on in order to embody ideals of derekh eretz. For the prayer space, the Design Labers realized that the residents wanted the space to feel like a synagogue, not just in its physical structure, but also in its communal, multigenerational nature. This led to the development of a volunteer program to get more children and families to the prayer space for Shabbat services.

From Explore, the Design Lab moves into the Prototype stage, developing ideas and solutions for the challenge at hand, always checking to make sure they line up with the actual needs expressed and getting feedback from the users and stakeholders. It is at this stage that we frequently bring in skilled builders, often local community members, to provide expertise in guiding the Design Labers in their work. Whenever pos- sible, participants make full size mockups of the physical object that will be made. These models are then tested by stakeholders and users to see if the size, scale and functionality works. From the prototype, Design Labers begin building, often with the help of skilled staff, the actual solutions to the challenge.

Finally, the importance of the Make stage cannot be overstated. Building real solutions to the design challenges is what makes the learning in the Design Lab authentic. Actually constructing the projects that they researched, designed and prototyped brings participants’ Jewish text learning to life and provides them with an enduring sense of accomplishment. The students create something that will exist in the real world, that they can visit later on, and that others will use and draw benefit from.

The Brandeis Design Lab provides an innovative educational experience to engage high school students in the Jewish community, teaching both meaningful Jewish content and a skill set to serve students throughout their lives. The Design Lab approach is without a doubt a remix of several older educational trends along with the rise of Design Thinking in the educational world. It is an approach based in empathy, creativity, learning and making that can continue to be used and remixed in a variety of educational settings—maybe even yours.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016