The lesson that most stuck out to recent University of Tennessee, Knoxville, graduate Johnathan Woods was the one that had been the most challenging for him and his team to put together.
Every Thursday afternoon for the past two semesters, Woods, a graphic design major from Hendersonville, Tennessee, and three of his classmates have run a virtual after-school design club for students at Knoxville’s Vine Middle Magnet School. They plan and deliver lessons—from designing music album covers and sneakers to animated GIFs and high-fashion clothing—that show middle schoolers the wide scope of career opportunities available in the design world.
But not every lesson is intended to be as straightforward as, for example, logo design. UT students lead with creativity and get it right back in return. So when Woods delivered a lesson on how to design with empathy, he wasn’t sure what to expect.
“It’s such an abstract concept,” Woods said. “You’re defining empathy, and then you’re trying to identify and solve these problems or challenges people experience.”
For the lesson, UT students picked out some popular Disney characters—Shrek, Olaf, Ariel—and asked Vine Middle students to create vehicles suitable for each of their different environments and needs. Woods used the Procreate app to draw the ideas as students shouted at him over Zoom: We need something swamp friendly for Shrek! Better make it dragonproof! He’s going to need an outhouse!
“They were so invested in finding solutions,” Woods said. It was an eye-opening experience for him. “I had no aspirations to be a teacher when I started this. But it’s been one of the most enriching experiences I’ll ever have in my life.”
The decision to create DUUNK (Design Understanding U Need to Know) at Vine Middle originated with Sarah Lowe, a professor in the College of Architecture and Design.
Lowe, who directs the School of Design, wanted her students to get real-world experience in both designing and teaching design for middle schoolers.
Four graphic design students led the club in the fall, and one—Woods—stayed on for spring semester. Since the club is expected to continue indefinitely, each semester new students will work with experienced ones to ensure continuity and allow Vine Middle students to develop relationships with their design mentors.
Lowe’s classes regularly partner with community organizations and other university departments for service-based projects. In 2019, her students produced videos and a social media campaign to spread awareness of noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus for a hearing conservation project with the UT School of Music and the UT Health Science Center. Other collaborations have produced everything from a children’s book to a mobile walking tour app for Knoxville’s Beck Cultural Exchange Center.
Before DUUNK launched, UT alumna Kendra Berry, Vine Middle School coordinator for Knox Education Foundation’s Community Schools initiative, led an orientation for the UT design students to learn the school’s history and gain context about its students and families. All after-school programming at Vine Middle is overseen by A1 Learning Connections, which also organizes after-school programs for Austin-East High School, where many of the middle schoolers go for ninth grade.
“At this age, they’re still exploring who they want to be when they grow up,” Berry said. “And they may not be able to link that directly to a career. Through DUUNK, that door is explicitly opened for them, so they think, ‘I can keep going in this, and I can continue to hone my skills.’”
Like Woods, Allie Torres-Lopez, a junior graphic design student from Greeneville, South Carolina, was nervous about teaching until she saw how creative and engaging the students were in every meeting. “They come up with stuff you’d never even think about,” Torres-Lopez said.
She led DUUNK’s cereal box design lesson this spring. First she presented the concept, showing how cereal boxes are designed and how packaging has evolved over time using familiar examples like Frosted Flakes. Then she gave the students free rein to make their own boxes.
“We emphasized it doesn’t have to be something they’ve already seen,” Torres-Lopez said. They drew everything by hand, integrating superpowers and cultural references to characters from video games like Among Us and Minecraft they had brought up all semester.
Torres-Lopez, who plans to continue volunteering with DUUNK in the fall, thought she was going to be a freelance designer when she started at UT. The program and others she has been involved with in the School of Design have helped her to realize there is much more she can offer the world through her profession.
“My work needs to have a purpose,” Torres-Lopez said. “I want to be making an impact somehow.”
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