Collaborative Education

November 1, 2010 · by Victor Ermoli and Scott Singeisen

If we are training students so they might go out and influence the world, then why are we going through such pains to isolate them from it?

Imagine a wall. No, imagine several walls that divide a single space into multiple regions, each with its own designated focus: a space for people who play instruments, another for those who write stories, one for mathematicians, one for chemists, one for thespians, one for filmmakers, one more for architects, and so on. Imagine if the world were divided in just this way, with no interaction between the artists and the scientists, the dreamers and the realists -- no sharing and exchanging of ideas or experience, just separate spaces.

Welcome to the world of higher-education design.

It is so often the case that universities and colleges across the country divide their students according to program or major, weeding out the poets from the physicists, placing them into individual ivory towers sans the necessary skein of hair by which they can be rescued. Thus is the nature of academia: to compartmentalize students in a highly focused four-year regimen of lectures, labs, studios and, finally, the rigorous demands of a portfolio, all in hopes of preparing them with the correct theories and fundamental skills necessary to acquire a career in design. Ultimately, this is why we educate students, this is why we choose an academic profession: to nurture future designers, to stir and inform their talents so the world might become a more beautiful, more fulfilling place because of them. Yet, if we are training our students so they might go out and influence the world, then why are we going through such pains to isolate them from it?

The Structure of Education

The structure of design universities is founded on teaching students about the industry, showing them how to practice the techniques of the industry and, ultimately, requiring students to master what is viewed as industry standard before the four years are up. Is it any wonder there is no time for students to break down those walls or climb out of that tower? With so much focus on current industry demands, there is little time left for students to engage with peers in other fields, let alone break down the boundaries that keep their thought processes dogmatic. Teaching students fundamentals is necessary when preparing them to meet the expectations of design fields, but creating an environment where those tools and skills can be used in accordance with other fields and a diversity of thought prepares them to exceed the expectations of the design world. The object of focus here is, of course, collaboration.

Restricting students solely to their fields prevents them from learning to relate to the potential partners or clients they will encounter in their careers. Strict focus on fundamentals and traditions in design, or even training students in current design industry trends, is not progressive enough. By the time students graduate from university, the trends of their education are outdated and they are hopelessly behind industry standards. They typically hold an impressive portfolio but possess little actual experience that can speak to their hands-on ability, talent, or practical application. Collaboration is not just necessary, it’s essential.

Scaling the Walls

The concept of collaboration is not groundbreaking, but it is one that some design schools are beginning to delve into. One such school is the Savannah College of Art and Design, which is defining collaboration in its broadest terms, including not only representatives of a diverse range of fields but external partners as well.

True collaboration must incorporate all levels of the system, including administration, curriculum, and students. It is not about having one course here and there in a separate department, it is about having 100 percent of the students in a department experiencing interdisciplinary collaboration all the time.

SCAD’s industrial design department took on the challenge of carrying out these ideals. Though conceptually the process may sound idealistic and intangible, all of the students coming out of the department are graduating with a collaborative experience. This result required a commitment from all parts of the institution and a network of industry relations to sustain it. If all students are not exposed to collaborative experiences, then collaboration is not occurring.

With this philosophy in practice, students are firmly grounded in traditional design elements by taking required courses in the foundation studies department, which allows them to interact with students outside of their discipline from the very beginning of their academic pursuits. But they are quickly immersed in their field of study while being required to work with other disciplines on projects. These projects have to be seamlessly incorporated into their curriculum to assure its effectiveness and be able to measure its success. Collaboration is so deeply ingrained into students during those impressionable first quarters that they latch onto the concept and quickly begin partnering with students in other fields to create new and exciting projects.

One such project, in which School of Design students paired with fine arts students, resulted in the creation of an innovative sculpture to serve as the centerpiece for the city of Hinesville, Ga. The city of Hinesville and the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority proposed to construct a memorial monument in the center of downtown and approached SCAD’s sculpture department for ideas. Several students submitted proposals, but the winning team was composed of two architecture students and a painting student. The architecture students brought creative design elements, structural, technical, and practical knowledge to combine with the painting student’s visual and textual components. Together, they created something that showcased the special techniques used in each of the disciplines.

Similarly, students begin working with industry partners almost immediately in their courses of study. The School of Design has established solid relationships with organizations such as JCB, Rubbermaid, Natuzzi Italy, and VTech. During the past year alone, the industrial design department had 23 industry sponsored projects. These partnerships put students in a central role working in a real situation with professionals from multiple disciplines. External partners are required to provide at least two people from different departments as representatives in these projects, thereby exposing students to professionals from a diverse range of fields. The students learn firsthand what is expected of them and their role in an industry.

The partnership with VTech, for example, gave students time to research and design products for the company. The group traveled to Hong Kong to present product designs, as they would present designs to clients in the career world, then returned to Savannah, where they developed their products with VTech’s input. Students had the opportunity to work with engineering, marketing, and business development professionals during this project. Industry partnerships provide students with at least 10 weeks of industry experience upon graduation and provide companies a source of fresh concepts and potential. In essence, students undergo a 10-week job interview that culminates, at the least, in professional experience and an addition to their portfolio, and at the most, an internship or job offer.

The benefits of partnerships do not end there. Students are immediately confronted by real challenges during their industry experience and begin formulating ways of meeting and surpassing those challenges, as well as discovering long-term solutions. This is when fresh ideas coming from the students’ education begin influencing industry rather than simply being influenced by industry. This is already standard in fields like engineering, medicine, and economy.

The future of design education relies on the partnership between universities and industry and the mutual recognition that university programs should be creating developments that will advance industry.

Fledgling collaborations are not enough to prepare students for the post-college environment. It is the responsibility of colleges and universities to view their students as professionals, to place industry experienced professionals into the role of professor, and to view these programs as partners for industry. After all, these are the brilliant minds that will one day be running the most notable, cutting-edge design companies in the world.

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Victor Ermoli is dean of the School of Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He holds degrees in design and environmental design from Venezuela, the United States, and Canada and has 12 years’ of teaching and 20 years of professional experience.

Scott Singeisen is a professor of architecture at the Savannah College of Art and Design and has chaired the architecture department since 2007. Prior to joining SCAD, Singeisen was in practice in Sarasota and Orlando, Fla.

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