The annual Cooper Hewitt Fellowship provides financial support for a registered Queensland school teacher to complete a project in design education at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. We sat down with Silas Middelton, who alongside Dawn Boland, is the 2015 Cooper Hewitt Fellow discuss his fellowship.

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From your perspective, what is the significance of the Cooper Hewitt Fellowship and tell us why you decided to apply for it?

The namesake of the Cooper Hewitt Museum has a rich cross-generational design background. Peter Cooper Hewitt was an American electrical engineer and inventor, who invented the first mercury-vapour lamp in 1901. He was the grandson of Peter Cooper, who designed locomotive engines, produced iron rails, glue, patented gelatine, and oversaw the advancement of telecommunications. The family has a rich and solid heritage with considerable forethought and epitomises the truest sense of ‘design thinking’. They were problem solvers who lived modestly and continued to help build a better world.  Peter Cooper was an American industrialist, inventor, philanthropist, and candidate for President of the United States, who had a strong sense of the need of education, and for many years served as head of the Public School Society. Peter Cooper Hewitt’s father was also at one stage a teacher. The generations of family continually tinkered with things, they were visionaries that saw an opportunity, particularly where it helped others by actively thinking, innovating and discovering. Daughters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, were very passionate about allowing others a place to think and learn creatively. Their legacy continues to radicalise education today.

As educators, it is fair to say, we are in the midst of unparalleled change. Technology and globalisation have exponentially changed the infrastructure of our society, and like Peter Cooper Hewitt we must have the foresight to discover a need and apply innovative thinking to it.

Current methodologies of teaching require a massive paradigm shift – from teachers of content – to the facilitators of problem-solving.  We must begin to act accordingly to the future needs of our students. Our nation, driven primarily as a country of resources, needs to look into the needs of our youth and create engaging mindsets that allow students the skills to actively think, innovate and discover; that is a shift from an industrial economy to one that utilises design thinking to remain relevant and at the forefront of change. It remains these skills-sets that will forge our global competitiveness.  These changing needs of students demand that teachers expand their role beyond purveyors of information, to become facilitators, co-investigators, guides, and coordinators.

Today, the Cooper Hewitt Museum remains at the forefront of showcasing and exploring design thinking and offers many educational avenues. They encourage students and their teachers to think like designers, approach the world in a visual way and better understand the role design plays in their everyday lives. 

So in essence, the significance of the Cooper Hewitt Fellowships stems from its heritage and its continuation to provide problem-solving skill sets to students in innovative and interesting ways that can underpin the framework for the essential modes of thinking required for the 21st century students.

Can provide some details about your proposed design education project?

Essentially, I hope to produce curriculum chunks that capitalize on the innovation of design processes for Junior Secondary schooling ensuring choice, voice, and cathartic moments of realisation through higher order thinking that the design process paves the way for. I hope to achieve a better understanding of the design process by not only talking and learning from the phenomenal staff at Cooper-Hewitt, but also creative professional experts in various fields.

Quintessential to our inherent nature as human beings is the capacity to cooperatively explore, create and to share. This is particularly apparent in the Junior Secondary phase of learning which must continue to apply the philosophical and practical aspects of the design processes to adequately embrace the sense of exploration and creativity in a systematic way. Working alongside the Cooper Hewitt experts I hope to delve further into  ‘design processes’  to facilitate working models that other teachers can utilise, replicate and invigorate their teaching practice.

What are some of the likely skills and strategies you’re hoping to be exposed to during your Fellowship experience that will help you deliver quality design education here in Queensland?

Explore the ‘design process’ in a variety of ways capitalising on ‘real-life’ methodologies; where the skill set can be applied to various aspects of learning and life.

As indicated on their own website, www.cooperhewitt.org, ‘Cooper Hewitt has drawn on its extensive experience planning and leading education programs for people of all ages to create an immersive learning space that brings the design process to life.’

It is their motto of “Play Designer,” that interests me, where learners can experience the creative process of design firsthand by engaging in a series of digital and physical activities based on four categories: getting ideas, prototyping with materials, critiquing, and evaluating everyday design solutions.

The experiences created by the Cooper Hewitt remain true to the vision of its founders, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, who intended it as “a practical working laboratory,” where students and designers could be inspired by actual objects. Their 1897 vision of a museum and collection “for anyone who wanted to use it as a place to work and learn” seems radical, even by today’s standards, but it has guided the transformation of Cooper Hewitt into a design museum for the 21st century. 

It is this sense of learning through ‘play’as a designer that I know wholeheartedly will resonate with Junior Secondary students. It was something I did as a child, and think it needs a stronger place in the classroom based on problem solving, and creativity paving the way for a new wave of not only interior designers, interaction designers, fashion designers, communication designers, architecture designers, but a generation of thinkers.

What do you think are some of the benefits the Fellowship might deliver for the education community here in Queensland?

Content is no longer the key. Content is readily available at a push of button, albeit Siri or Google. The focus must shift to thinking skills and thinking tools. Curriculum needs a shift from locked-in subjects, to integrated tasks that replicate actual challenges that give choice, voice and cathartic moments of realisation.

Do you have any other comments about the Fellowship?

Needless to say I’m very excited to be afforded this endeavour that forges two of my passions; education and design. To be a part of the Cooper-Hewitt Fellowship in NYC is an honour for which I am most thankful.