Putting New Tools in Students’ Hands

Why would you study design if you weren’t planning to become a designer? Especially if you were a high school student in a depressed rural area of the United States, like Bertie County, one of the poorest counties in North Carolina, where 80 percent of students live in poverty, and your best chance of employment will be a low-skilled job in agriculture or biotechnology.

Why indeed? Yet all 16 teenagers in the 11th grade at the School of Agriscience and Biotechnology at the Bertie Early College High School have committed to attending an experimental design course, Studio H, for three hours every day in the new school year. An abandoned car body shop behind the school has been converted into a classroom, studio and workshop for the course. By the end of it, the students will have designed a community project, a farmers’ market to sell locally gown produce, and will then be paid to build it over the summer.

Because of Bertie County’s poverty, “very few of these kids will become designers,” said Emily Pilloton, founder of the humanitarian design group, Project H, who recently moved to Bertie County from San Francisco to run Studio H with Project H’s project architect, Matthew Miller.

“Lots of people in poor rural communities like this have no idea what design means, or think it sounds fancy,” she continued. “We’ll be teaching the students design thinking, leadership skills, shop skills and citizenship. Hopefully they’ll think of design as a different way of thinking, seeing and tackling problems. If they go on to work in, say, agriculture, it’s a great way of understanding why they might plant in a different way.”


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