Design education by students, for students: DeCals at Jacobs Hall

Prototyping solutions to an everyday problem, building a beautiful website, designing a sustainable water system: these are among the projects students will be tackling in Jacobs Hall this semester. The instructors behind these assignments, however, might take you by surprise. The projects all come from DeCals — courses taught by UC Berkeley students — that are making use of Jacobs Hall’s spaces for design learning. The DeCal program, in which students work with departments and faculty sponsors in offering courses for their fellow students, is a unique element of the Berkeley experience, with offerings covering topics from the global food system to Scrabble.

Class in session at Jacobs Hall, via Web Design DeCal.

Jacobs Hall is the site of five design-focused DeCal courses this semester. For student instructors, the building offers an opportunity to locate their classes in an environment built for the collaborative, hands-on approaches that characterize their work. “[A studio in Jacobs Hall] creates the interactive and creative environment that our DeCal has always strived for,” says Jessica He, who co-teaches a DeCal on web design. From whiteboards to critique nooks, Jacobs Hall’s studio spaces are aimed at facilitating all kinds of design education — including the wide-ranging learning taking place in DeCal courses this spring.

One of these courses, titled {design.}, offers students from a broad range of backgrounds an orientation to human-centered design theory and practice. With activities spanning discussions, talks from guest speakers, hands-on work, and project critique sessions, the course will have students learning about design thinking, prototyping solutions to problems in their everyday lives, and more. Students will explore design processes and wide-ranging areas like sustainability, persuasive design, and design for humanitarian impact. “At the end of the semester, we want [our students] to think critically about the design of everything around us, from chairs we sit in to planes that fly us around the world,” say course instructors Serena Chang and Shanthi Shanmugam.

Elsewhere in Jacobs Hall, DeCal courses invite students to bring these kinds of design processes into conversation with specific technical or domain-specific skills. Graphic Design Principles allows students who are proficient in design software like Illustrator and Photoshop to go further in their graphic design explorations. Interweaving technical work with concepts and applications like color theory, branding, and user interface design, the course enables students to engage with graphic design from a multi-faceted perspective — and to build a portfolio of high-quality design projects to show off.

Similarly, the Web Design DeCal links programming skills with broader design approaches. The DeCal’s instructors aim to empower students to build their own websites, regardless of previous experience. According to Eric Liang, one of the course’s instructors, this is an ability students are eager to access. He notes, “A lot of students take the class because they want to make a club website or redesign their family’s business site.” Throughout the DeCal, students both learn coding skills in HTML, CSS, and Javascript and gain familiarity with website design philosophies. Ultimately, each student builds a website of their own. Liang says, “We hope that our DeCal gives students the confidence to code, the confidence to design, and altogether the confidence to create.”

A Jacobs Hall teaching studio.

Students are also using Jacobs Hall as a launching pad for bringing this confidence with design into the broader community. Student group Pioneers in Engineering, for example, is running a DeCal that prepares participants to mentor underserved high school students in a seven-week robot-building season, all leading up to PiE’s annual competition in late April. As part of the DeCal, which requires no previous robotics experience, students learn skills like mentorship in addition to getting familiar with the mechanical and electrical elements that compose PiE’s robotics kit.

Another student group, THIMBY, aims to empower students to design with broader context in mind through its DeCal, Sustainable Building Design: Tiny Houses. Students will delve into design/build practices, exploring the tiny house movement and working to use sustainable design practices in projects from building a biofiltration system to developing sensors for monitoring conditions like air quality. “The nature of our class is all about collaboration and hands-on learning, trying to bridge the design/build gap. We feel that this way of learning is the lifeblood of Jacobs Hall, and having our class in a space that both fosters and inspires this form of education was really important to us,” says Oriya Cohen, one of the course’s instructors.

Collectively, the DeCals taking place in Jacobs Hall this semester take this focus on collaboration and hands-on learning in multiple directions, opening up various entry points to design. The instructors hope their DeCals will play a role in empowering students to build things of their own, from graphic pieces and websites to robots. Cohen, the Sustainable Building Design instructor, emphasizes this focus. “I hope,” he says, “students walk away knowing that it is both possible and incredibly rewarding to design and construct something from the ground up, with no prior knowledge.”

By Laura Mitchell