St. Luke's School designLab class

A Deep Love of Learning

design-build team profile

A Deep Love of Learning

Students at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan Connecticut design economically efficient homes.

By Kimberly Gerardi

St Luke's School New Canaan, CT designLab class

I WORK AS THE DESIGNLAB TEACHER at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan, Connecticut, and I recently challenged my 6th grade students to design economically efficient homes by creating their own clean energy prototypes. The model-home challenge is part of Habitat for Humanity’s online learning curriculum. In small design-build teams, the students created quarter-inch scale models using the Engineering Design Process. Let me share our story with you.

My school is a secular, college-preparatory day school for grades 5-12 in New Canaan. The designLab is St. Luke’s hub for design-thinking, engineering and computer courses, and home to our 3,500 square foot, fully equipped fabrication lab created for hands-on learning and exploration.

In addition to the exceptional designLab space, my model-home challenge had the support of administrators and faculty who are willing collaborators with insights, knowledge and abilities, and somehow make the space for allowing creative ideas to take shape. And they do it well. I am privileged to work among professionals who are all working towards the same goal: To provide an exceptional education that inspires a deep love of learning, a strong moral compass, the commitment to serve, and the confidence to lead.


tiny house construction

St. Luke’s puts an emphasis on project-based learning both in individual classes and in teaching teams. One example is when 6th grade math teacher Susan Garnett and I work together to introduce scale to our students. It is imperative students grasp how to read and use architectural scale rulers, and how that ties into the ratio lessons they are learning in math class.

Having led five summers of camps related to sustainable energy systems, I really wanted to tie my love of Tiny House Construction together with my theories about teaching sustainability to middle school students through prototyping. Each summer I refined the class projects and consolidated supporting material based on student feedback. The information was important, but it was summer camp after all, and the kids loved the hands-on aspect of the work. Live Green and Take It Apart are two classes that I developed for middle school students to connect with and explore technology with the purpose of creating sustainable energy prototypes.

St. Luke's desgnLab tiny house models

Through computer science and the Engineering Design Process, my students collaborate and learn the foundational knowledge necessary to create simple working systems in roughly quarter-inch scale. These systems translate to full scale systems when they learn from professionals who further unpack the needs of the systems and homes in real-world scenarios. Students can relate to the material through the online Habitat for Humanity resources that highlight the need to bring these sustainable energy systems to places like Guatemala, Mongolia and Indonesia. We grow the students’ lenses on the world when they learn about what homes are like around the world. Students discuss the possibility that people in many places around the world do not have the means or knowledge to improve their way of life.

Environmental strong points graphic

habitat for humanity

While developing my curriculum, I looked at Habitat for Humanity as a possibility to run a mini-course or special trip to build a home with students. Perhaps we could travel to a site over a Spring Break to help build a house. But it became clear that there would not be sufficient time for middle school students to learn the skills necessary to safely build a house. Having used the Habitat Restore in Danbury, Connecticut to obtain windows, doors and other building materials for my Tiny House exploration, I was familiar with their website. I noticed that within the Habitat for Humanity online youth program, there were additional educational experiences linked to their site.

After reading through the materials on Habitat for Humanity’s website and realizing that they were already thinking ahead to not only the use of sustainable building materials, but to reaching people who are truly in need of this technology and these resources, I knew this was the perfect paper project for my sixth grade class. Using the model house plans provided from their website, I knew that we could create quarter-inch scale models with clean energy systems within relative scale to the house. Using the makecode platform for micro:bit (micro:bit is a tiny programmable computer, designed to make learning easy and fun) we could learn how to use drag and drop code, but also create variables and tailor the code to fit our needs.

St. Luke's students in designLab

For example, by using the micro:bit code and a circuit project for self-watering plants, we substituted the moisture sensor for a temperature sensor and created our geothermal system. Students were able to understand that they could change variables for moisture levels into temperature variables in order to trigger the servo motor which acts as a valve in our prototype. In addition to creating a self-watering plant (perhaps for one of our student’s vertical vegetable gardens in their Dream Green home) we also could use a similar code and system prototype to send collected rainwater from our solar still via water tubes under the house for radiant heat.

Wherever possible, this system could be used underground as a geothermal system or extend the growing season by running warm water through tubes in a hoop house adjacent to the habitat house. Or as students Alana W. or Grace K. might use under the beds of their rooftop garden. After weeks of working with micro:bits, the students were finally able to realize how the information transferred from prototype to real-life applications. Similar to the self-watering plant project, we used other tools (such as our laser cutter to cut plexiglass windows) in our designLab to build solar ovens that double as rainwater collection and solar stills.

The benefit of having a state-of-the-art designLab is the ability to provide students with the materials they need in order to create the groundbreaking projects that help inform global change. After all, how could I ask students to build a sustainable energy model and prototype without the necessary tools and equipment? Our students have the ideal environment and tools for inspiration and invention: six 3D printers, a 60w CO2 laser cutter, two ShopBot CNC routers, a SawStop table saw, multiple power tools, hand tools, digital support tools for graphics and decal fabrication, computer science tools and resources including tools for AR/VR fabrication, one-to-one ratio of children-to-computers and a class size of 14.


inspiring the next generation

The way we can get our technology to function in the miniature house just might inspire a child in my class and cause a wonderful ripple effect to reach many people over time. Suppose even one student loved the idea of creating these sustainable energy homes and dedicated themselves to take a deeper dive into clean energy systems design? Suppose another student was inspired by the public purpose for providing those in need with a home? It reminds me of the TED Talk by Daniel Pink titled, The Puzzle of Motivation. Pink goes over the behavioral psychology of functional fixedness and how we can be given problems to solve with no help, or with guidance to help us succeed. So regardless of incentive, without the information we need to succeed, it is way harder to move beyond the ability to see things for what they are.

It never ceases to amaze me how inventive middle school children can be. They seem uninhibited, have a growth mindset and are willing to be playful about what is possible. But without the tools and information necessary to build trust and empowerment in the classroom, they will not move beyond that initial functional fixedness.

My students consistently impress me year after year and within this specific exploration, I was pleasantly surprised yet again by my 11-year-old students. Their most significant contributions came from their ideas for clean energy systems in their Green Dream Home designs, an exercise at the end of the Thinking Green, Building Green lesson in the Habitat for Humanity online curriculum. Through these designs, students shared ideas for new ways of harnessing solar energy such as Henry B.’s biomimetic-designed magnifying glass shaped windows which mimic water droplets that can magnify the sun and work in tandem with heat absorbent plains (on the walls and floors) to harness more solar energy. And Ryan C.’s thoughtful way of utilizing the wind energy atop his home on stilts. Ideas were illustrated by Wyatt F. and Izzy Squared (The Two Izzy’s in class!) that were mindful of aesthetics and comfort for maxing and relaxing in their self-watering rooftop gardens.

In our designLab at St. Luke’s, service learning and global leadership projects like this happen every semester. There are so many opportunities for kids to grab a hold of meaningful content, technology, and most importantly to design with empathy. Empathy for our planet and for the people who live on it.

St. Luke's School designLab student
St. Luke's School designLab students
St. Luke's School designLab students
St. Luke's School designLab

final thoughts

What I have noticed about children, having had two of my own, and having worked with kids in grades kindergarten to 12th, is that it takes more than just the tools and the insight to produce good work. Students need to be inspired to work. Just when I thought I could easily take on the responsibility of passing on my knowledge of design and technology to the next generation of inventors, engineers and prolific artists, I realized I could not take off my student cap just yet. I needed to be able to inspire budding minds and help mold them into people who would soon change the world.

Crawling out of my narcissistic shell, and emerging as a newborn, er, reborn educator? . . . I realized that I needed to reach my students based on their interests and experiences. Grappling now with this Constructing Modern Knowledge is a conference where people go to invent to learn. Led by Gary Stager and Sylvia Martinez, their opening remarks are not only inspiring, but encouraging. “You’ll be amazed at what you can do” still resonates with me. And it was there that I was inspired and challenged to grow yet again as a student. As a designer. As an educator.

As a basic foundation in all quality design it is imperative that the work represents an authentic truth in order to evoke an emotional response. Empathy plays a huge part in how our work can become rewarding and serve our outer purpose as individuals on this planet. Having been a teacher in both theatre and design at a middle school and high school level, it has been the essence of my mission to make empathy a priority in the learning environment. It is my responsibility as a teacher of design technology to encourage students to build from the heart and provide them with the tools and knowledge to succeed.

Kimberly Gerardi

St. Luke's School designLab