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Understanding Systems in Las Vegas: Report from media design workshop with SNWP

Written by Christina Cantrill
December 07, 2012

Nearly 30 educators from the Las Vegas area along with national colleagues from as far afield as Round Rock, Texas; Conway, Arkansas; and the Tar River area of North Carolina gathered on Friday, November 16 on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus for a workshop introducing a newly created digital design curriculum.  Co-hosted by the Southern Nevada Writing Project, the National Writing Project and learning scientists from Indiana University, through support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative, the workshop was a hands-on experience for educators to explore a new set of curriculum materials and activities. 

The three-volume curriculum called Understanding Systems: Digital Design for a Complex World will be published by MIT Press in spring 2013. This curriculum, part of which was originally designed by the Institute of Play for the Quest to Learn school in New York City, has since been iterated by and co-developed with writing project teachers. As recently as last summer, writing project educators from the Central Texas, Great Bear, and Oregon Writing Projects spent a month in Chicago iterating the curriculum while implementing it during a summer camp for youth (see Grinding New Lenses.)

Participants in Las Vegas then had an opportunity to engage with the design-based approach of this curriculum.  Through a range of hands-on activities, they explored a set of tools, forums, and concepts used in the series to scaffold discussions and understandings of systems thinking, design-based learning, and enhanced literacy learning.  Specific activities included an opportunity to read and write digital stories with Scratch or to explore DIY electronics crafting with e-textile technologies. A third volume, focusing on game design using Gamestar Mechanic, wasn’t explored at this particular workshop, but will be at future events and is the third volume in the series.

In anticipating the workshop, Fawn Canady, Southern Nevada Writing Project Teacher Consultant and teacher at West Career Technical Academy, explained, “I am very interested in the Design Thinking process. I’ve used lots of technologies/digital applications, such as digital storytelling; however, I am curious about how design thinking will change the planning and implementation process for teachers and students. Will students be a part of the creative process? How will this cycle change the approach to using digital design in the classroom?”

Stephanie West-Puckett, co-director of the Tar River Writing project, in imagining the possibilities after participating in the workshop, wrote: “I’m interested in how we might develop thematic units with our Social Studies teachers that explore civic literacy and community engagement through a systems lens. … I think we could collaboratively explore systems thinking as a way of helping young people map their networks and make savvy choice about engagement in those systems and how the texts they are producing might impact those systems and function as connected elements instead of disparate, a-contextual pieces of writing.”

The Understanding Systems: Digital Design for a Complex World books build on the existing work of educators, management theorists, designers, and learning scientists who are aiming to promote systems thinking in young people. It is the premise of the curriculum authors that to effectively and ethically educate children to thrive in the 21st century, we must create contexts in which young people are supported to be creative and courageous about designing new systems, making changes to existing systems and understanding how everything is interconnected.

The curriculum is aligned with ELA Common Core State Standards and actively builds on student interest in digital culture and creation.  

Workshop facilitator Kylie Peppler of Indiana University said, “In a world that’s only growing more complex, being able to think across domains to solve interconnected problems is becoming a key 21st century competency.”

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