Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) is pushing the design envelope with their new Master of Arts in Sustainable Design—an interdisciplinary, studio design-oriented degree that is also offered completely online. The Designers Accord talks to Program Coordinator (and biomimicry education leader) Cindy Gilbert about the inspiration for the program and how MCAD plans to shape the next generation of global creative problem-solvers.
Designers Accord: MCAD has a long history of leadership in sustainable design. What prompted the creation of this program at this particular moment in time?
Cindy Gilbert: MCAD's Sustainable Design Online (SDO) program grew out of a public sustainable design lecture series and film series that continues today, both hosted by MCAD in 2000, long before it was hip to be green! Our new MA in Sustainable Design is a result of the natural evolution of a successful professional certificate program that has been offered at MCAD since 2004. It was also shaped by the Designers Accord Design Education Summit and the toolkit that the attendees co-authored.
When I came on board in 2010, I conducted candid interviews with every instructor, student, staff and alumni of the certificate program that I could reach to determine the program's greatest challenges and opportunities. A resounding outcome of the feedback was that a multidisciplinary, graduate-level degree was required to provide students with the appropriate credentials and experiential framework to become effective global change agents. The time is ripe for change and MCAD has the online learning tools to magnify the reach and sustainability expertise to continue to lead the charge.
Designers Accord: You mentioned the Designers Accord Education Summit as helping to shape the new Masters program. At that event in October 2009, you participated as one of several facilitators of the group of 100 design educators from different institutions and countries talking about the future of design education. What insights in particular contributed to the creation of the program created at MCAD?
CG: The DA Education Summit was immediately influential to me and my work. I applied many of the comments that I heard from the group to the development of an educator's training program at The Biomimicry Institute (where I worked at the time) and I also met two founders of MCAD's SDO program at that event who would become my greatest supporters when I joined the MCAD team a year later.
We have used the DA Education Toolkit to guide the creation of MCAD's new MA in many ways and at different levels. 1) Course level: the "Creating a Common Language"—one of 8 topics in the toolkit—helped to frame our Introduction to Sustainable Design course curricula. 2) Program level: the topics "Designing a Sustainability Curriculum," "Updating Existing Design Programs," and "Measuring Success" were particularly helpful in bringing consciousness to respecting the work that has preceded us. My biggest task then, and today, is to listen. 3) Institutional level: "Creating a Common Language" has been an invaluable reference point for my work at the institutional level. Gaining traction for a novel and untraditional program has been the most challenging part about the process. Remembering that the program, like everything, is part of a system helps to foster sustainable relationships. Transparency and patience are critical factors for success.
Designers Accord: There are several new "social oriented" graduate-level design programs launching (from SVA and CCA, among others). How is your program contributing to this landscape of options, and how do you compete for excellent students while celebrating other institutions who are evolving like MCAD?
CG: MCAD's SDO program is pleased to be counted among the burgeoning group of graduate-level sustainability programs that emphasize true-cost accounting and courses instructed by practicing sustainability professionals. Our program was consciously designed to be small, agile, and adaptable to cater to the needs of busy working professionals and the changing sustainability landscape while delivering on MCAD's 125-year motto, "students first."
We offer our program completely online (no hybrid classes or in-person sessions throughout the entire 2-year degree), and enjoy a global applicant pool (and faculty list) that can engage from wherever they reside. Because we are developing a strong network-based cohort of only 16 students per year, we are taking competition out of the equation. Instead we are able to focus on cooperation; you'll find our SDO faculty teaching at other institutions, sharing lessons learned in MCAD classrooms at international conferences, highlighting student designs in articles and collaborating on sustainability initiatives across organizations.
Designers Accord: What prompted your team to structure the program as 100% online? Was that a stated request from your potential student base or faculty, or a statement about the evolving definition of education?
CG: At MCAD we have a history of experimenting with online learning, and decided to create this entire program online so we could reach a global audience who could bring diversified perspectives to our classes. Also, this format allowed us to reach the people we wanted to reach most—practicing professionals that would be able to put sustainability concepts, tools, perspectives, etc., into action right away (no matter what their job title) rather than wait until they graduated and could land that "green" job.
In addition to the texture our diverse student body brings, online education has the largest margin of growth in higher education (in 2011, 10% compared with 1% overall). This is a sustainable model in education. We leverage the tools that are emergent, freely available, and that will help our students become more impactful leaders. We are consciously leveraging the reality of the way the world works now; adaptation is the key to survival and productivity.
Designers Accord: In what ways do you anticipate that it will change the dynamic of the small group?
CG: What we know for certain is that building small group dynamics takes more time and intentional effort online than in person. Because of this, we train all of our online instructors to teach effectively online and how to cultivate student-instructor and peer-to-peer interaction online. Every course is fully developed and reviewed prior to student enrollment so that instructors can focus on the students when they enter the classroom. Once a group is established online, we see that they become incredibly close and connect with each other more regularly than typical students do in a bricks and mortar situation. We also see that people that would typically not speak up in an in-person setting have the time and space to respond in a way that leverages their strengths.
Another interesting outcome is that students that connect online build bonds that span geographic, disciplinary and cultural borders and are able to keep in touch and collaborate professionally no matter where they live because they have the prior support, skills, and experience doing so. Many students report that they become team leaders/consultants in their work environments because they gain group dynamics experience that transcends the online experience.
Designers Accord: Even though the program is fully online, it sounds like you will be building a real connection and intimacy amongst the students. What are your strategies to make this work?
CG: Creating an authentic connection amongst our students is a key programmatic objective and one that isn't easily accomplished in person, let alone online. MCAD's team of SDO faculty meet monthly to discuss these and other challenges/opportunities that our students, curricula, and program face. Together we have arrived at a multipronged approach that blends a core online learning support for our students and faculty in leveraging online technology and tools, faculty online course development and technology training, social media outreach, personalized student advising each semester, individualized faculty-student interaction, peer-to-peer critiques, required collaborative team work, web-based portfolio sharing, etc., to name a few of the strategies. However, the true key to our success in relationship building between our students is to employ the same holistic systems thinking approach that we teach in the program. We listen to our stakeholders, access their needs, evaluate what's working and what's not, and adapt where needed.
Designers Accord: How is your program is working to recast the term "sustainable design" and broaden its applicability through its specific approach? Why is this topic even relevant today?
CG: It has been said many times by others but I'll state it too: good, thoughtful design is sustainable design. I look forward to the day that we don't need the qualifiers "good" or "sustainable" because the word "design" will be synonymous with these terms. The topic is relevant today, it was never irrelevant, and we believe it will never be. It just so happens that we live in a time where the planet's resources have been mortgaged beyond capacity for the all organisms that depend upon them, including us. This can feel daunting to many but I believe it is an exciting time. We are fortunate to live in a time that it truly matters what we do and why we do it. Living and working for a purpose greater than ourselves is energizing and fulfilling. I wouldn't have it any other way!
Whether or not everyone embraces this fact or not, designers have the ability to positively impact the world with every job they take, concept they imagine, and work they create. Amazingly, "designers" of all stripes create all the human-made things we consume and I believe have the responsibility and power to make significant decisions that will impact—either directly or indirectly—everyone and everything on the planet. One of the fundamental things we teach in the SDO program is whole systems thinking, that everything is interconnected, for better or worse. With support, experience, the tools and a lot transparency, we know that designers will not only make things for the better but will become agents for change beyond their own work.