Guest post by Darren Ellwein

Stanford’s has had a major impact on how I view learning in my school. Founded in 2005, the is an institute that brings students and faculty from different backgrounds together to tackle real-world challenges and develop innovative, human-centered solutions using design methodology. 

When I had the opportunity to attend and learn about the design thinking process (@k12lab), I was particularly impressed by how every square foot and piece of furniture had a thoughtful purpose.

I thought about my home school, Harrisburg South Middle School in South Dakota. There was a tremendous amount of unused space. Classrooms, hallways, and little nooks were wasted opportunities for learning. What if we were to design these spaces in a flexible way that promoted collaboration and multiple modes of learning?

I shared my ideas with Scott Doorley, the creative director at the, who encouraged my work and helped me envision a new life for these spaces. After leaving Palo Alto, this vision has morphed into a passion to construct the ideal learning environment for our students.

The Beginning

When I returned to HSMS, I walked through the entire school and evaluated every square foot of space in my building from a new perspective. Then I used the design thinking framework from Stanford to develop a plan to maximize hallway and classroom space. Next, I gathered student input to better understand what our end users actually prefer. Their response? They wanted flexible personal places, somewhere outside the learning studios (what we call our classrooms), to be able to work with friends in an upright space.

I thought carefully about their wishes, spent time observing students working, talked with teachers and students, and researched furniture and seating options. The solution we needed was a coffeehouse-style setting with high-top tables where students could stand and work together in the hallway.


Now that we knew what we wanted, it was time to get to work and create our vision. If your district is similar to mine, I don’t have a massive budget to buy furniture from companies marketing flexible working environments. This project had to be homegrown with parents, community partners, teachers, and students involved in the process.

First, I collaborated with two parents who helped to build a prototype of the table with an industrial look and a whiteboard/dry-erase surface. Next, we worked with various community partners and local businesses who generously donated the supplies we needed. Then, a group of parents met on a Saturday morning to build 10 tables and install them in the hallway.

Physical Improvement Sparks Positive Student Reaction

These efforts paid off when our students immediately began to gather and collaborate around the new furniture. The physical improvement sparked such a positive reaction thatwe now regularly survey our physical campus looking for opportunities to unlock additional enthusiasm for our learning environment. In fact, we will be finishing our next piece of furniture later this fall, complete with five different prototypes each specific to a different learning function. Follow my blog for updates on our builds or direct message me on Twitter (@DEllwein) if you want to chat further or need the cut dimensions of this table. As I like to reply when people say “think outside the box”: There is no box.

Think about how you can apply design methodology on your school campus to build better learning spaces.

Darren Ellwein is the principal of Harrisburg South Middle School in Harrisburg, SD. He is the 2017 Fall Digital Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter @DEllwein.

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