Design Thinking, City as Classroom, Museum as Homebase

Imagine going to school in a museum, studying real artifacts, engaging in project-based learning and designing solutions to new problems.

Grand Rapids Public Museum School is a design-focused secondary school in a museum and a former museum in downtown Grand Rapids. Formed as a collaboration between Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Kendall College of Art and Design (KCAD, part of Ferris State University) and Grand Valley State University, the City of Grand Rapids and Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.

Christopher Hanks, Museum School principal and former faculty member in the GVSU College of Education, explains why design thinking is central to the curriculum, “We want to transform the students from consumers of education to producers of it.”

While Kendall contributed the design thinking process (below) you’ll see hanging on the wall at the Museum School, it’s also prevalent at GVSU. Math prof David Coffey explains, “Design thinking is essentially creative problem-solving.” Coffey was trained at the Stanford and is part of the Design Thinking Initiative and is a consultant for the university’s Design Thinking Academy.

In addition to design thinking, the other anchor concept at the Museum School is place-based education. In addition to leveraging museum space, collections and expertise, the Museum School views the community as a classroom. This view is supported by a center focused on place-based education at GVSU.

“Our aim is engaged and empowered citizens,” said Hanks. “What drives us is cultivating those skills.”

“We’re also interested in sustainability, about nature in the city, about being urban dwellers,” added Hanks.

A Museum with Education Roots

Founded in 1854, the museum merged with Grand Rapids Scientific Club, a group of local high school students after the Civil War. The growing collection became the Kent Scientific Institute and was administered by the Board of Education and housed at Central High. In 1903, the collection moved to a house at the corner of Washington and Jefferson.

During the Great Depression, a WPA funded department store style building replaced the house (it was considered an innovation in accessibility in the museum world). When the new museum opened on the Grand River in 1994, the Jefferson Avenue facility was shuttered. Based on the educational mission and a clause in the original partnership agreement, the building reverted to the school district creating an interesting opportunity.

In 2012, jogging buddies from the museum, the school board and Ferris State hatched the idea for a secondary school in the museum. GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neil included the idea in district plans later that year.

The middle school opened in 2015 with 60 sixth graders in the museum. Their permanent space on the fourth floor was completed in August 2016 and 60 seventh and eighth graders were added in subsequent years. Almost half of the students come from a variety of non-district schools so culture building was an early priority.

Middle school teachers work with museum staff to develop lessons. Some lessons are taught in exhibit spaces.

Most Grand Rapids elementary students participate in a week-long Immerse program at the museum. Teachers receive summer training to make long-term benefit of the experience.

A Super School

After winning an XQ Super School grant in 2016, the high school opened in 2018 in the renovated Jefferson Avenue facility a mile to the east. Serving 81 ninth graders this year, full enrollment in three years will be 360 students with upper division students spending a considerable amount of time taking college classes and working with community partners.

Opening into a great hall (below), the first floor of the high school includes art, music, maker and artifact space (the museum’s collection of 250,000 artifacts is in an adjoining building).

Six core teachers (four new to the state) developed the high school curriculum during the year before opening.

A third of the ninth graders are working on a community-connected team project (the rest will cycle through it during the year). All of them take coding. Students use Chromebooks to access and complete assignments.

“We’re working hard to add personalized learning to project- and place-based learning this year,” said Hanks.

The second floor (below) looks like a Google or Steelcase office with a variety of flexible seating options and space for individual work and small group projects.

As one of four GRPS Center of Innovation schools formed around a specific theme with university partners, the open enrollment Museum School admits students by lottery.

Extracurricular activities will expand as the school grows to full enrollment. Students also have access to sports and activities at two comprehensive high schools.

Add GRPMS to your list of schools to visit to see design thinking and great place-based education.

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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