Ethics Lab hosts ‘designer turned activist’ Krystal Arnett Henson

Krystal Arnett Henson visited Ethics Lab last week to speak with students about her experience as a “designer turned activist.” Henson is the founder of WalkingDot, a DC area program that teaches human-centered design to everyday citizens. WalkingDot teaches problem solving through empathy and design and connects volunteers with their local communities—mobilizing and empowering individuals to use their talents for social change.

Students were most interested in Henson’s recent work to create ways for citizens to easily become involved in the growing activist movements (even if they considered themselves introverts as Henson herself does).

First she created Postcards From The People to encourage citizens to make sure their voices are heard. The online resource provides postcard templates that citizens can use to write and mail their state and federal representatives about issues they care about. Henson partnered with artists and designers to create the artwork for the postcards, which are free to print at home.

Volunteer artists and designers also team up with Henson to create event and issue-specific illustrations for the postcards, including a recent campaign supporting career officials in the EPA.

After quickly becoming known as “the postcard lady” in local grassroots circles, Henson connected with two other local activists to start Postcards For Virginia, an effort that aims to get out the Democratic vote in Virginia for the recent statewide election.

Postcards For Virginia started in May of this year, in anticipation of the June 13 primary. The initial round of postcards were general “get out the vote” messages that didn’t endorse any specific Democratic candidate. Leading up to the June election, approximately 400 volunteers mailed 7,200 postcards to fellow voters. When the June election broke the Democratic turnout record by 220,000 voters they knew there was a real opportunity.

“People are paying more attention,” Henson said of the June election. “We need to reach out to these folks. If we don’t engage people now, nothing is going to change.”

The team utilized the growing grassroots network by attending meetings to share the project as well as using Facebook and Twitter to connect with volunteer writers. The project quickly became a way for people locally and even across the country to connect in person or online as a community. Organically the project grew beyond their expectations and in the end Postcards for Virginia’s volunteers personally wrote and paid for more than 136,000 “get out the vote” postcards leading up to the Virginia general election this November.

Henson spoke to our students too soon after the historic outcomes of the November 7 election to offer specific insights, but her team is working with the social and behavioral scientists at CitizenBe to conduct a research study on the impact of the project.

Ethics Lab students are working on a project using social media and animated slides to create five “postcards.” Students asked Henson about her path from professional designer to activist, and sought out advice and insight on how to best communicate their messages – particularly those with a call to action.

“Find a way to connect—quickly. You’ve got five slides to tell a story but only one to make me care enough to click. Lead with the most powerful thing you have and end with how I can do something.”

In addition to her work as an activist, Henson has been a practicing designer, across multiple disciplines, for over 20 years. She has taught graduate level design at the George Washington University’s Corcoran School as well as the Corcoran College of Art + Design where she served as Chair of the Interior Design department.

Friend of the lab Matt Pavesich, Associate Teaching Professor in English and Associate Director of the Writing Program here at Georgetown, is offering a new course this spring that builds on the project-based studio pedagogy employed in previous flagship Ethics Lab courses:

This class is an experiment. We’re going to test a new kind of class at Georgetown — a class in which the students, you, will receive course credit for working on a project that you’ve dreamed up, that you’d like to work on if you had time, but sadly will have to leave forgotten on the shelf because you’re at Georgetown — you don’t have the time.

After an introductory unit, intended for us to create a shared ethos and group dynamic, each of you will pursue your own individual communication and design projects. Our meetings will have a common thread — a little reading about communication design in the 21st Century and discussion — but most of our shared studio time will consist of working alongside each other, bouncing ideas around, conducting critiques (“crits”) of our work, and making substantial progress on a project personally important to you.

We will consist of two subgroups, the 305s and the 105s. 305s are students, sophomores and above, who have already worked in one of Georgetown’s studio-ish courses: University as a Design Problem, the Studio Collaborative, Introduction to Design, and so on. 305s will begin the semester with a working proposal and/or prototype of a project, and their semester’s work will be to take it to completion. They will also serve as mentors to the 105s.

105s are interested in design work and its methods, as well as communication generally. They have not taken part in the curricular experiences that 305s have; this will be their first studio class. They will likely not yet have a proposal for a project; their semester’s work will be to conceive of a communication design project, to research it thoroughly, to write an extended proposal for its completion, and to create a rough but working prototype.

Admission to the class will be based on your application: please email Prof. Matthew Pavesich with a brief statement of the project you would like to pursue this semester (approx. 300 words). This project may be one you have begun in a prior class or another forum, or it may a project you have not yet begun. Please also indicate whether you’ve participated in any of Georgetown’s design or studio-related courses or projects (the Red House, the Studio Collaborative, a UNXP course, etc.). Design experience is not required for admission.

Fall 2016 Course Offerings

Interested in designing for the common good? Want to create a new model of learning in higher education? Here are some courses lined up this fall at Ethics Lab:

IDST-308 Foundations of Design · Arjun Dhillon: This studio-based course provides a foundation of design theory and practice that will help equip students to flourish in the emerging landscape. Students will build competency in a transdisciplinary practice of design, and they will begin to develop the dispositions, habits, modes of thinking, and ways of seeing necessary to routinely shape the world.

IDST-425 University as a Design Problem II · Arjun Dhillon + Randall Bass: This course will take on the design of a new model of learning in higher education. Using Georgetown University as our site for design and prototyping, students will pursue institutional change with a sense of urgency for the state of the world. This will be more than just an exercise; efforts here will inform the development of a new curricular program at Georgetown, and all students will be expected to contribute.

PHYS-203/PHYS-551/BIOL-261/BIOL-561: Science & Society: Global Challenges · Francis Slakey + Allyson Anderson: This seminar introduces students to some of the most significant and complex science and public interest challenges of our time including: managing a global pandemic, reducing carbon emissions, meeting growing global energy demand, and containing weapons of mass destruction.

Student accepted to prestigious summer design program

Ethics Lab student Danielle Huang was accepted to UC Berkeley’s summer course in landscape and urban design at their Center for Environmental Design (CED). The program consists of [IN]ARCH, [IN]LAND, and [IN]CITY, three introductory programs in architecture, landscape architecture and sustainable city planning for post-baccalaureate students or senior-level undergraduates, as well as [IN]ARCH ADV, an advanced studio for post-baccalaureate students who have a degree in architecture or who are senior-level architecture majors. Students in the Summer Institute explore the methods and theories of the fields, experience the culture of design and planning studios, connect to top faculty and practitioners, and build a portfolio for graduate school application.

Huang, who became interested in environmental and sustainable design while taking Arjun Dhillon’s Foundations of Design course, applied to CED in hopes of getting a better sense of what type of design she would like to pursue after her undergraduate career:

“One project that Prof. Dhillon and I would like to pursue in the upcoming school year is to build and design a tiny house,” said Huang. “I hope that at Berkeley I can further develop my visual representation skills and learn about environmental planning so that I can apply this knowledge to a sustainable, tiny house project.”

The Berkeley program offers a lecture series, a design or planning studio, a seminar or media course, and site visits, which Huang hopes to intersect with her ongoing studio experience at Ethics Lab.

“Because I am still unsure about which focus of environmental design I should pursue,” she said, “I really hope that this program will inform me on what type of graduate education I would prefer, either one in landscape or urban design. As for design thinking, I look forward to exercising my creative, problem solving skills and the opportunity to learn from my peers at Berkeley whose unique backgrounds drive their design thinking.”

One of the student projects we’re most excited about comes from Caitlin Cleary, Andrew Green, Noah Martin, and Caitlin Tompkins. The team began their work in 2015’s Science & Society: Global Challenges course. Since last fall, the team has developed The Invasive Hitlist — a series of field guides designed to create a culture of eco-positive recreation that benefits the ecosystem, rather than harming it; the first entry in the series centered on designing an innovative response to combat the growing population of invasive Northern Snakehead in the rivers surrounding Washington D.C. The booklet addresses the global challenge of invasive species, with the goal of inspiring local action and raising awareness. Their second entry in the series The Invasive Hitlist: Origins, is forthcoming following beta testing.

The team’s hard work paid off this year, earning them a commendation in the Undergraduate Bioethics Showcase. The series has also been a hit in several external communities, with demonstrated interest in the product as an educational and informational tool from both the Bureau of Land Management and the Fisheries for Veteran’s Project. The student team has leveraged their talents to make early deals with both organizations–gaining access to contributing researchers, a critical mass of species information, and potential bulk product orders, all while maintaining creative control of the product design and development.

All of the books produced to date have been produced by hand entirely in Ethics Lab. We plan to continue mentorship and support of the Hitlist project while developing more concrete plans to guide the final stages of incubation for Lab-developed projects.

Learn more on the Invasive Hitlist website »

Work from a variety of courses offered by Ethics Lab was on exhibit in Healy Hall last week to serve as a retrospective of select projects developed by students in studio over the last two years.

The exhibit itself was a project of Nina Yang, Han Wu, Yifei Wang, a student team in Arjun Dhillon’s spring 2016 Foundations of Design course. It includes work from the following projects:

  • Maps of the United States — given the constraint that they could not include any geographic references
  • The Game of HIV+ — a board game showing the disparities and challenges of healthcare for someone with HIV/AIDS around the world
  • GENERATE — a merging of art and science into an art book raising awareness about the complexities surrounding personal genomics
  • Choose Bamboo — a proposal to use bamboo as the primary material for new construction on Georgetown’s campus
  • Inglorious Produce — boutique packaging for peculiar produce
  • The Lottery – a comic book about enrolling in a clinical trial
  • Scattered — a graphic novel dealing with prescription study drugs on a college campus
  • The Invasive Hitlist — the first in a series of field guides designed to create a culture of eco-positive recreation that benefits the ecosystem, rather than harming it

Photos from Yang, Wu, and Wang’s exhibit can be viewed above.

Georgetown University professor and Ethics Lab partner Francis Slakey and his students shared their experiences in a multidisciplinary, project-based course that has real impact on the world outside of the classroom.

The course, Shaping National Science Policy, was co-taught by Prof. Slakey and David Goldston in Ethics Lab this spring for the second consecutive year. The video above captures scenes and interviews from last year’s studio collaborative and other past Science in the Public Interest students.

Students were asked to identify a social issue–teams from last year’s class ranged from studying the effects of pesticides on Argentinean agricultural workers to rethinking menstrual hygiene management in India–then guided by faculty mentors and external experts to develop a strategy for a fundable solution.

To help realize their projects, students then met with outside funders like Proctor and Gamble, Coca-Cola, and the Peace Corps in an effort to advance one of the key pedagogical innovations offered by Ethics Lab’s studio-based classes: students getting hands-on experience making authentic progress on complex global problems.

Thanks to the Red House for producing this video as part of the larger Designing the Future(s) of the University initiative.

This week, Ethics Lab hosted mid-term crits for Professor Slakey and Professor Pavesich’s studio collaborative. Students from Shaping National Science Policy (Slakey) and Introduction to Rhetoric (Pavesich) were asked to pursue legislative and non-legislative routes to affecting some change in the science and public policy space.

Teams will likely iterate and evolve from their current project states, but here are high-level summaries showing the range of their work:

  • Team A: increased funding for young science researchers
  • Team B: increasing the number of minority participants in clinical research
  • Team C: guidance and legislation to improve treatment and recovery of concussion victims
  • Team D: a new approach to reducing opioid prescription drug abuse and overdose that equips those likely to be with at-risk patients with the education, skills, and medication they need to provide life-saving care if an overdose occurs
  • Team E: better, more equitable treatment of transgender people in healthcare
  • Team F: a shadowing program for pre-med students from low income backgrounds
  • Team G: labeling for GMO foods highlighting the positive aspects of this technological advance
  • Team H: proposed legislation to grade foods by their sugar quantity in an effort to get people to eat healthier

At the end of February, core team member Nico Staple traveled to San Francisco. A highlight of the week was a “field trip” to the Exploratorium, a hands-on museum of science, art, and human perception. A focus of the visit was the museum’s Tinkering Studio, best described by the sign at its entrance:


Think with Your Hands

Making things and developing ideas by hand helps us construct understanding. Slow down, settle in, and make something personally meaningful—from playful contraptions to surprising connections between mechanical systems and natural phenomena.

Inside are custom-made tables, space dividers constructed of poster tubes, stop-action animation stations, an enormous ball maze built with only toothpicks and glue, a dedicated workshop, and much more. One of the coolest items in the Tinkering Studio is a vending machine that dispenses an assortment of crafting supplies in quantities suitable for the everyday tinkerer. As the studio says in a blog post on the machine, “Tinkering is all about using what you have around and messing about with everyday materials, but for some projects, you need a special little bit of something that is hard to find.”

Nico and team were fortunate to get a special tour of the museum by Mike Petrich, Director of the Making Collaborative. Mike explained the philosophy of the Tinkering Studio and its role in encouraging visitors to slow down and transition from the chaos and the highly stimulating main exhibit floor to engage with ideas and materials personally and in a tactile way. This sentiment is echoed in this passage from the studio’s website:

The Tinkering Studio is based on a constructivist theory of learning which asserts that knowledge is not simply transmitted from teacher to learner, but actively constructed by the mind of the learner. Later, constructionism suggested that learners are more likely to develop new insights and understandings while actively engaged in making an external artifact.

This philosophy tracks well with the studio model we use in Ethics Lab classes, where students move fluidly back and forth between raw content assimilation and creating a tangible thing that is valuable in the real world.

The lab team drew great inspiration from the Exploratorium and is eager to continue tinkering back on campus!

EthicsLab: The Year in Review

Despite our infancy – especially in comparison to the rest of the centuries-old giant that is Healy Hall – we have just wrapped up quite an impressive academic year. The studio was rarely empty (even at four in the morning!), the tunes were always jamming (…perhaps to others’ dismay, even at four in the morning), and the creative juices never stopped flowing (except maybe a little at four in the morning – creation is tiring work!).

In the fall of 2014, Maggie Little and Arjun Dhillon co-taught an Introductory Bioethics course, merging philosophy and design through ethically complex design projects centered around issues of autonomy, informed consent, personal genomics, and other intriguing bioethical prompts.

In the spring of 2015, Matt Pavesich, Maggie Little, and Francis Slakey taught courses in Rhetoric, Bioethics, and Science Policy, respectively, within the framework of a studio collaborative model directed by Arjun Dhillon. Students worked in cohorts comprised of class members from each of the three academic disciplines, forming truly dynamic teams with varied skills, knowledge, and experiences to create products addressing everything from plastic water bottle overconsumption to the shortage of organs available for donation.

In the spring of 2015, Randy Bass taught a course entitled, “The University as a Design Problem” in Ethics Lab, where students developed new and innovative models of what higher education might look like as our global assets and needs continue to rapidly evolve.

In the summer of 2015, Hailey Huget’s class on Moral Status incorporated elements of design as students worked in studio to develop board games that engaged players on a variety of complex and nuanced ethical dilemmas, balancing their own moral compass with the strategies and incentives of the created game.

Throughout the academic year, Ethics Lab has hosted a variety of esteemed guests, visiting the studio as project partners or vision holders, collaborators, guest lecturers, and jurors.

Our space has continued to grow and evolve as we add books and resources and modeling supplies and even a soldering iron – you should see our purchasing orders! Ethics Lab is making a splash as a design hub on Georgetown University’s campus as we encourage students, faculty, and external collaborators alike to use the space for their creation work.