Project intro: Amend reflector design

11 October 2008

One of the major projects I’m working on right now is for a wonderful non-profit called Amend. Amend’s work addresses the issue of child roadside injury in the developing world, with a focus on Ghana. Few people realize the severity of this problem, which is the number one cause of death and disability for children aged 5-21 in Africa.

When I recite the above statistic, people are usually taken aback. For a crisis this severe, we hear almost nothing about it on a daily basis. Roadside injury is a silent epidemic. So why does the problem exist, and what can be done to fix it?

The potential for roadside injury exists wherever pedestrians and motorists are required to share the same roads. The problem is minimized by good infrastructure (lights, signs, bike lanes, sidewalks, marked crossings) and by good behaviors on the parts of both motorists and pedestrians. The problem is exacerbated in the developing world because economic development is rapid and often comes without the necessary infrastructure and time to adapt to new behaviors.

Roads are often of poor quality, rarely paved and frequently full of potholes. The rule of the road is that the biggest entity has the right of way, a rule that is enforced by honking and aggressive driving behavior. Crossings are rarely present, even in cities. (Anyone who has tried to cross a street in central Saigon will know what I mean.) Streetlights and reflective signage are minimal.

At the same time, people use the roads for everything, and pedestrians have no designated spaces to travel. Children are particularly vulnerable because their size makes them less visible to drivers and because they often have to travel long distances to school.

Amend works on a number of fronts to address the problem, and a major part of their effort involves cultivating good behaviors in children with their “Be Seen, Be Safe” program in schools. Amend works in the schools to train kids on roadside safety, teaching lessons through songs and with printed materials. Amend also distributes reflective wristbands to the kids to wear, both as a reminder of the lesson and a way to make themselves more visible to drivers.

We know from other countries that reflectors work to reduce the incidence of roadside injury, but they have to be worn consistently and they have to be visible in the right places. Which is where I come in. I got involved with Amend a little over a year ago, through my friend Peter who had seen my design for LED backpack badges in my portfolio. I had designed those with the thought that they might be a good supplement to reflective strips on backpacks by providing light in the dusk hours when most drivers have yet to turn on their headlights and many kids are on the roads coming home from school. Peter shared that idea with Jeffrey, the founder of Amend, and when we all met he shared with me that he had been looking to redesign the reflectors to increase compliance and visibility.

When I started the MID program at Pratt last year, I gathered a group of classmates and we began working on a new design. It’s been a real learning experience so far. We put together a list of tons of questions and have been working with the Ghanaian Amend team to understand the context we’re working within: Ghanaian lifestyle, culture, and environment. We had a big ideation session, collecting tons of ideas for ways to address the problem that go far beyond reflectors. At the moment, we’re working on about 30 concept ideas for everything from backpacks to clothes to accessories, which we will present to Jeffrey in just over a week. The team has worked really hard and it’s super-exciting to watch it all come together. I’ll post some selections soon.

The case for experiential learning

1 October 2008

My classroom-furniture-that-moves-with-kids project is as much about educational theory as it is about furniture. It all started with an article I read a few years ago about why boys are now underperforming girls in most levels of education, beginning at the elementary school level. One of the hypotheses posited by the author was the idea that boys are less inclined to sit for long periods of time at young ages, making it more difficult for them to learn in the way that our educational system requires.

But if you go to schools and watch kids, you realize, it’s not just boys who need to move. All kids need to move. And not just that, but kids do move. Despite best intentions of teachers and the most rigid and restrictive furniture designs, kids are moving all day long: swinging legs, rocking back on their chairs, squirming, dancing, fidgeting, and generally doing everything but being still.

When I mention to people that I’m working on a piece of furniture that lets kids move in the classroom, I hear the same response over and over again. “Wouldn’t teachers hate the idea of kids moving even more in the classroom? Won’t that be distracting?”

Contrary to common perception, I have a hypothesis that furniture that moves with the kid will actually be less distracting than the rigid setups currently available. I’ll go into more detail on this another time, but for now I want to consider this notion that it’s more conducive to learning to be in a classroom where the kids are all sitting still. Not mincing words here: this is a fallacy propagated by an outdated view of education. It’s not more conducive to learning for the kids to be still; it’s more conducive to teaching.

W.B. Yeats said “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire” and I think this speaks directly to the problem at the heart of the way we approach education. We view kids as empty pails, and we design the learning environment to keep them still to make it easier for the teacher to pour knowledge into them. Just as it’s easier to fill a stationary bucket, it’s easier to teach kids who aren’t running all over the place.

But kids are not empty pails or blank slates. As educational consultant Jonathan Drori points out in the TED talk linked above, by the time kids reach school-age, they have tons of mental models formed from their experiences of the world. Through a set of deceptively simple questions that many adults answer wrongly (I stumbled over more than one), he illustrates the ways in which our educational system replaces these native, multidimensional mental models with ones that are far less effective.

“Kids understand gravity and magnetism far better before they start school than after a few years in the school system,” he points out. It’s experiential learning that drives this understanding, learning that involves the kid as a person, rather than as a vessel. As kids play and experiment and feel their way in the world, they discover truths with multiple senses at once, building deep and powerful connections in the brain. This method of learning is propelled by and reinforces kids’ natural curiosity, but is only a very small component of the teaching method employed in schools today.

Experiential learning and movement go hand in hand. A child who is free to move is free to physically explore the concepts he is learning, and a system that encourages experiential learning by definition would have children spending very little time parked in a chair. My project aspires to promote change from the bottom up – literally. By making the furniture about support and movement rather than restraint and control, I hope that design can demonstrate the benefits of rethinking the ways we learn and teach.