Emily Pilloton first discovered the rewards of teaching kids to design and build things while co-founding Studio H, an innovative high school shop class in Bertie County, N.C., that was featured in "If You Build It," a recent documentary that will soon to tour the country.
The designer/teacher/activist is now running Studio H out of REALM Charter School in Berkeley, Calif., where she has founded Camp H, an after-school and summer design-and-build camp for 9- to 12-year-old girls.
Pilloton became focused on developing a program for younger girls when she was asked to pitch in as a school adviser. She said trying to lead discussions with themes like "what it means to be a sister" had fallen flat.
"The girls were all really timid and shy and hesitant to speak up and raise their hand and say 'This is what I think,' " Pilloton told me by phone. "I was supposed to teach them something about life and social skills, and the only way I knew how to do that was through building. They were really into it! They would say 'Where's the chain saw, I want to cut something in half!' I was really surprised and delighted by that."
The goal of Camp H is to offer girls practical creative and problem-solving skills in a nonacademic setting to build confidence and to help them through the rest of their school years and beyond.
"It's a moment in their lives when they are about to become disenchanted with math and science and school in general," Pilloton said, adding that the kind of hands-on building work she had them doing -- cutting plywood with a jigsaw, fusing metal with a welder -- offered them a chance to learn math and science skills in an organic way while building meaningful projects for themselves and the community.
Pilloton said she felt a special connection to this age group, remembering her own childhood years -- age 9, 10 and 11 -- as a "seminal moment" when she learned how to feel competent and empowered by playing sports and learning how to work with her hands. And while she is wary of making sweeping, gender-based generalizations, she said she chose to create an all-girl camp after noticing the differences between how her female and male students tackled problems, with the boys often jumping right in and the girls generally wanting to be apprised of the steps they needed to follow before tackling a new project.
"There aren't enough spaces for girls to be together as girls doing things that feel audacious," Pilloton said. "I don't want girls to just be given a hammer and say 'You're holding a hammer, that's awesome!' I want to teach them how to weld. And to work on projects that don't feel artsy and craftsy. Not like straight-up wood shop, but to balance the creative and the artistic side."
A future session will have the girls building furniture and lighting for a women's shelter.
"I want the projects either to have a personal connection or to teach the girls about being a citizen," Pilloton said, adding that she would be there to help guide them through the design thinking process of asking questions, coming up with ideas, and then the hands-on skills needed to work through obstacles and achieve a final result.
"I will never ever just give a girl or a student a set of plans and tell her to follow instructions."