What happens when students become active learners, teachers lose the pressure to “perform” in the classroom, and the learning environment fosters collaboration? I learned all of these things and more when I recently taught a class at Girls Garage in Berkeley, CA.

My objective was to teach a classroom full of teen and pre-teen girls about AutoCAD, a Computer Aided Design program. As an Interior Designer by education and trade, I use CAD quite often in my day-to-day work. The program can be extremely complex in scalability and level of detail, but it can also be simple and easy to use for conceptual design and problem-solving. This software program is used not only by Interior Designers and Architects, but also Engineers in Math, Science, and Mechanical fields. To be able to introduce these girls to such a vital program in STEM and creative fields was thrilling. The opportunity also came with a wave of self-induced pressure to perform. I wanted to teach this program well so that these girls could believe in their ability to conquer a difficult feat.

Walking into Girls Garage on a Monday afternoon felt familiar to me, as I am a frequent visitor to their space and love the positive energy and atmosphere of the garage. The feeling that day, however, was different. This was the first day of my class as a teacher, and I immediately became nervous as anxiety crept into my thoughts. Questions reverberated through my mind like rapid fire; “What if I say something stupid?”, “What if I don’t explain something well?”, “What if I don’t know how to answer one of their questions?”, “These girls are used to building and making during their classes…am I going to be labeled the ‘boring’ teacher?”

I decided I wouldn’t worry so much about my performance during class, but focus on the girls’ understanding of what was being taught. This seemed to be the logical issue at hand and also calmed my nerves (for a while at least). I wanted and needed for them to benefit from the class more so than I did teaching the subject.

I decided I wouldn’t worry so much about my performance during class, but focus on the girls’ understanding of what was being taught. This seemed to be the logical issue at hand and also calmed my nerves (for a while at least). I wanted and needed for them to benefit from the class more so than I did teaching the subject.

The girls arrived one by one as their parents dropped them off outside of the front door of the garage. They filed in and sat down at a large setting of tables and stools, awaiting the rest of their classmates to arrive. They had a lot to catch up on from being in school all day and many were on their phones checking their missed texts and messages from friends.

After everyone had arrived, I was introduced as the teacher for the class and I stated a general overview of what we would be learning in the hour and a half session. We then made our way upstairs to the active learning classroom to begin. I started with “why” because that is not only my favorite approach to all things but also One Workplace’s approach to our projects. Read more about that here. It was important for me to explain why it was important for these girls to learn this program, not only because it was applicable to our class, but additionally why design is such an important step in the building process.

As the class went on, I quickly realized that some girls were adopting the new material faster than others. While trying to keep the advanced girls engaged and on track, I also hoped they would have patience while we assisted some of the girls that were not the fast adopters. All of this needed to happen simultaneously while trying to be likable, fun, and entertaining to the girls so that they didn’t end up dismissing a program simply due to the way I taught. The hour and a half quickly passed and I was unsure of the retention the class would have with the curriculum they just learned.

After that first class (and first time teaching), I realized the pressure that teachers are under, not only for one class but school year after school year. I felt that I was on a stage of sorts, rehearsing my improv lines as one would on “Saturday Night Live”. Literally putting myself in teachers’ shoes helped me gain empathy in a powerful and memorable way.

This is when I had my “a-ha” moment and appreciation for Project Based Learning (PBL). My experience that I described in having one or two advanced learners in the same class and session as the ones who needed more assistance is all mediated in a PBL environment.

If you’re not familiar with project-based learning, there are multiple resources out there for you to read and gather information. Edutopia defines project-based learning as “a dynamic classroom approach in which students actively explore real-world problems and challenges and acquire a deeper knowledge.” Overall, PBL is an immersive way of teaching and learning that gives great context to real-world problems and allows for the students to wonder, brainstorm and imagine all possibilities in their solutions. It’s highly active and collaborative—something that helps them in developing the four C’s of 21st-century learning.

Once the first session was over and after some much-needed reflection and refocus, we came up with a game plan that better encompassed the PBL pedagogy. We realized that when the girls were trying to draw ambiguous shapes and models in the software program, they weren’t connecting to it in a real-life way. They also weren’t able to surpass my instructions because they didn’t have the autonomy to do so. This all changed on the second day of class in the following week.

 

The Second Class: Adapting to the PBL Framework

When the girls arrived, we jumped right in and did a quick recap session of our first class and what they learned. Once we completed that step, we asked the girls to take what they learned, which were basic commands in which incorporate most of the program and apply it to something they can design and build themselves. We decided on a piece of furniture for the Girls Garage space.

Once the girls had a framework and overall dimension and material restraints, they started designing. This is when the magic happened. I saw girls who were once struggling to emulate what I did in a lecture style approach actually take autonomy over the design, look, and feel of the product they were producing. They dove in with audacity and fearlessness. The questions that once stemmed from overarching confusion from our first session changed to simple technical questions similar to, “how do these pieces fit together so I can make it look like a spiral?”

After the girls drew and designed their piece of furniture, built a scaled down model, and realized how the materials were to be used, they transitioned to build the actual furniture pieces themselves in the following two weeks. From designing to modeling and prototyping to building the actual furniture, the girls had full autonomy and saw their projects through from concept to full fruition.

 

Lessons Learned and Empathy Gained

I was humbled after this class and learned so much about the teacher’s role in the classroom. It amazed me at the level at which the girls excelled after they took an active role in their learning. They were no longer a passive participant, but a key member in the greater solution. The girls simply had to have an end result in mind with a few parameters to elevate their collaboration within their teams and give them context and reference to ask better questions. They developed a sense of wonder and authority about what they could do with their talents.

This approach not only helped the girls in their learning, but it took a weight off of my shoulders to “perform” during the class and become a learner myself. I didn’t have to worry about not answering their questions because we were all in a mindset of mutual exploration.  I found myself comfortable saying “I don’t know either, but let’s find out!” There were no stupid questions because we were all learning and creating together.

I also observed first-hand how space can affect learning and teaching. I witnessed girls enter the classroom and have choice and control of various postures used. The swivel chairs and mobile furniture in the active space allowed the girls to more actively participate and collaborate. Girls purposefully chose the seat in which they wanted to use for the class based on their experiences. One girl, in particular, rolled the swivel chair away so that she could use a wobble stool because she knew she liked to be physically moving throughout class.

The garage, where the girls eventually starting building their furniture pieces, also acts as a space for choice and control. The tools are kept in an open storage solution so that the girls don’t have to ask where something is or if they have permission to use them. The tools being so openly accessible also prompts the girls to ask questions about new tools they’ve never used before, which fosters curiosity and further possibilities in their learning.

Should I be lucky enough to have another opportunity to teach, I will frame my curriculum and way of communicating through the PBL approach. After seeing the transformation that took place in the girls from class one to class two, I now have a greater respect for teachers and deeper understanding of the role of student engagement within the classroom.  I am grateful for having had this experience and know that there is much that I will take from it which will stay with me throughout my career in designing spaces for learning environments.