The Art of Science

Photograph: Desiree Smock
Above: Michael Mitchell

When Westport magazine met Carolina Warneryd for the Teens to Watch issue, published in September, she spoke passionately about her education at St. Luke’s School. Located on forty acres in nearby New Canaan, this private, secular, coeducational college-preparatory day school, grades 5 through 12, draws students from many towns in Connecticut and New York. Carolina specifically mentioned STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), which turned our thoughts to the future of teaching it. We were introduced to Michael Mitchell, director of the school’s designLab, and told that he is ahead of the curve in the field. Here’s what he shared via email.

WHAT IS DESIGNLAB?
“The designLab is part of St. Luke’s Center for Leadership. It is both a physical fabrication space—housing rapid prototyping and physical computing tools—and an engineering and computer science curriculum. It’s also the home for design thinking at St. Luke’s, a place for students and faculty to learn and practice creative problem-solving. We consider a solution-seeking mindset a critical leadership skill.”

HOW DID IT COME ABOUT?
“The designLab evolved from our existing curriculum in engineering and computer science. We started with a small fabrication space and one 3-D printer and then one laser cutter. The space was used almost exclusively by engineering students. When we saw the skills and creativity unleashed in this small space, we decided we had to create a space and program all students and faculty could access. As director of designLab, it’s my job to ensure we have a top engineering and computer science program and that I attract as many ‘non-scientists’ into the designLab as possible. One of the most satisfying aspects of my role is seeing someone who is not naturally drawn to science discover that experimentation and creativity are for everyone.”

WHAT MAKES IT UNIQUE?
“To my knowledge, it’s the largest space of its kind in the area. I think it’s unexpected and wonderful that the designLab is located in St. Luke’s new Arts and Humanities wings. That really drives home that designLab is valuable across the curriculum. One of the coolest things we do is a weekend Hackathon. Kids collaborate on software and hardware projects and are mentored by alumni and industry experts. It’s a one-of-a-kind event.”

YOU WERE TRAINED AT STANFORD’S DESIGN THINKING METHOD. WHAT IS IT?
“I was fortunate to experience design thinking firsthand at Stanford’s d.school. It’s a user-centered approach that is rooted in empathy and encourages ‘lo-fi’ prototyping and iteration. For example, it’s easy, as a teacher, to work on a lesson or project to the point of near completion before implementing it with students. The design-thinking process would encourage me to involve the students in its development and prototype early in the process so that I can gain feedback and improve it in real time.”

WHAT IS CAROLINA’S SENIOR YEAR PROJECT?
“I’m helping her learn AutoCAD, a modeling software, and Arduino, a physical computing platform, so that she can design a sustainable toilet for the Guatemala City Dump and then create her own testing environment—including data logging!—for composting waste. I’m constantly impressed by her curiosity and capacity to dive into the unknown. …She is a serious STEM scholar and equally passionate about social issues.”

Carolina Warneryd
Photograph: Kyle Norton

THE GREATER SCALE OF STEM
“St. Luke’s teachers have really shown me the beauty of math by taking time to explain the big picture behind concepts, and focusing on seeing the patterns rather than memorizing the right formulas. This idea of going deeper into the material applies to other classes as well, from chemistry to physics. I’ve had many breakthrough moments, when I’ve been able to see just how interconnected all of my STEM classes are, from the multivariable functions that appear at the roots of logic gates to the physical properties of chemical substances.” —Carolina Warneryd

Note: Answers edited for clarity and fit.

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