Playing with Firebrands

How might we incorporate student perspectives into their own education?



Curriculum is top-down, and in the US, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are pushed by a government agenda. Students have very little say in how they're going to spend the typical 12+ years of their lives in school. The result is that many students leave education without a clear path for what they want to do, and more critically, who they want to become. How might we challenge the traditional model for public education to encourage and develop impassioned students?

Playing with Firebrands is a suite of design interventions inspiring students to ask questions and take action in  their own education.



Firebrand  n.

A person who is passionate about a particular cause, typically inciting change and taking radical action.


A firebrand is filled with passion and a drive for action, a counterpoint to the apathy we find in the education system. The objective of my thesis is to build a culture of students who care - about causes, about things greater than themselves - who can inspire and learn from each other. Who you play with makes a difference; sometimes it's better to play with fire.


The Problem

Gap Year Insight

Our education system isn't designed for what students want to learn. As a result, many students graduate without a clear sense of their passions or purpose.


I first became interested in education when I took a gap year between my undergraduate degree in engineering and my master's program in design. I had been frustrated with my experiences in school starting  from middle school, but had never stopped to think the system could be different. I began to explore what I truly was passionate about in the course of my gap year; reading about design, psychology, happiness, food, and whatever piqued my interest. In the process, stumbled across a philosophy of education that completely altered my perception of a system I had spent most of my life in.

I was privileged in that I was able to take time away from school and discovered a cause I cared about - education, in a context where I could make an impact - design. But what about the individuals who did not have the same opportunity for self-discovery?


Research Summary

Progressive Pedagogies

Progressive Education believes education should accommodate the holistic needs of a child - including physical, emotional, and developmental.


Progressive education practices mitigate many of the curricular frustrations with traditional public education. However, progressive education remains largely inaccessible to most students, as it is primarily taught in privatized education. The objective of my thesis was to take core principles from progressive education, such as self-directed learning, to reach a larger audience - the students in the public education system. 

The final result was a series of design interventions, with a focus on encouraging questioning as a method for discovery and engagement, as well as interdisciplinary learning that bridges "subject areas" to create authentic and relevant learning experiences.


The Solution

A Suite of Design Interventions

The body of thesis work involved tackling different aspects of ways to engage students in public education.


thesis presentation | sva theater, may 2017


Process Overview

Learning about Learning

The process included secondary research, 30+ expert interviews, 100+ sketches, and a lot of prototyping.


The thesis process had two stages: a 15 week sprint phase of one-three week sprints, followed by 15 weeks of targeted design work. 


Key Insights

Challenged Assumptions

There's an important difference between authoritarian and authoritative. Authority is not objectively good or bad.


I went into my thesis, determined to push back against a system that I felt was over-bearing and authoritarian. However, through interviews, my own bias against authority was brought into question. 

The answer to the ideological discrepancy was found in frameworks, providing enough structure for directives and accountability, while maintaining the flexibility and space for exploration that makes for individualized and authentic learning experiences.

Final Thesis Deck V215.jpg

Thesis Book