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Making space for design sparks an upsurge in student and teacher interest in technologies

Making learning spaces more conducive to design work was a driving force behind the fit-out of a multi-purpose building that has changed the face of technologies education at a north Brisbane school.

Northside Christian College opened its state-of-the-art, $12M Centre for Innovation and Creativity in the third term of 2017. More than two years on, Design and Technology is thriving—both in terms of student interest and faculty size.

The multi-level building includes tailored learning environments for technologies, music, art, dance, and drama, plus break-out areas for unstructured collaboration and a canteen on the ground floor which is operated by food technology students.

Head of Technologies and Design at Northside Christian College, Scott Murchie, said that he guided the fit-out of technologies spaces based on changes to the Australian curriculum, new senior subjects, desired senior student outcomes (including VET certificates), and a goal of future-proofing the facilities.

“The senior outcomes, together with meeting Australian curriculum obligations, meant we had to get away from (only) making boxes and coffee tables and do at least 50% design work as well,” Mr Murchie said.

He said the College did away with the majority of traditional workshops in favour of multi-use design innovation spaces that cater to mixed materials and developing design projects. 

“Woodwork or metalwork rooms quickly went out the window as we realised we can’t be driven by the nature of the materials, but instead by the true nature of the subject matter, which is problem-based design thinking.”

Mr Murchie said that rather than simply ‘rebranding’ manual arts, the College wanted to embrace the changes to the curriculum.

“We do about a 50% skills development base, but that’s only to give students enough underpinning knowledge to be able to design effectively.

“Societal and technological shifts are driving the curriculum and we have to think about student’s future needs, not just what we’ve done in the past.”

New spaces are efficient, flexible and future-focused

“I wanted to make sure that we used our space to the greatest efficiency that we could. We didn’t have the room to have four different spaces, so it was important that every space was multi-purpose,” Mr Murchie said.

“Students can research on their devices (there’s wifi across the building), do a design portfolio, access digital design equipment (3D printing and laser cutting), and they can also do prototyping, testing, and refining. 

“And if the job requires it, they can produce a finished product, whether it be plastics, metals, timber, electronics, or a mixture of all of those.” 

Mr Murchie said achieving a more visually creative and neutral physical environment had helped students, staff and parents to “speak a new language” when it comes to design and technologies as a subject area.

“We don’t want to skew the impression towards a particular activity, we want to leave that open for the teacher to select the kinds of activities that will benefit the learning.

“How the space is structured lays the foundation for how you expect to interact within that space—if the aesthetic triggers previous experiences then that can constrain your thinking.”

He said a pragmatic benefit of the flexibility of the facilities was improved timetabling.

“In any technical subject you need teachers with the technical competence to deliver the learning—so that’s one limitation. But if you combine that with only having one room in the school where you can deliver that content, you get a bottleneck very quickly.”

Changing perceptions of who participates in technologies

Mr Murchie said some long-term staff had been concerned that subject numbers would suffer as a result of a greater focus on design theory, but the opposite has happened.

“Technologies now has one-third of the electives in secondary school and is the biggest faculty in the school with 17 teachers. 

“The type of student that picks our subjects now is very different—there’s a much broader appeal, a greater spread across the genders, and the numbers have increased quite dramatically,” he said.

The College delivers four of the senior Technologies syllabi: Engineering, Design, Food and Nutrition, and Digital Solutions.

Mr Murchie said the new surroundings had also attracted new staff to the technologies faculty, including teachers with backgrounds in science and art.

“New approaches to delivering curriculum have shown them opportunities that have lain dormant for a while—they’ve now seen a space they can operate in.”

He believes concerns about a lack of specialised technologies or trade-trained teachers might be better viewed as a growing pain as a new status quo emerges.

“In the past we’ve been very protective of our spaces and cooperating with other areas. We see science as a threat, art as a threat. Whereas our new approach to technologies just sees opportunities to collaborate and bring richness to the curriculum.”

Mr Murchie began his own career as an apprentice and worked as a cabinetmaker for 20 years before studying education as a mature-aged student and moving into a teaching career 15 years ago.

“While that kind of experience might be essential if you’re delivering Certificate I in Furnishing—which I did for a while—it’s not essential if you’re teaching Year 7’s about physical forces as part of a unit in a CO2 car project. 

“In fact, it can be a barrier. The perfect teacher in that situation is probably a science teacher who I can up-skill to use the equipment, but is best-placed to deliver the meaningful content.”

Mr Murchie is happy to coordinate site visits of Northside Christian College’s Centre for Innovation and Creativity for teachers that would like to see the design innovation spaces in action. Contact DATTA Queensland to express your interest and we will pass on your details.

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