Linda Keane, AIA, is the co-founder of an architecture studio, an academic who specializes in architecture and environmental design, and a passionate advocate for design education. Her interests collided with the creation of the award-winning education website NEXT.cc, which offers free design learning opportunities for K–12 students, teachers, and families.
Keane and her husband and partner Mark Keane launched the site 11 years ago, and it is now used in 50 states and the District of Columbia and more than 200 countries. Along the way, it’s been recognized by the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, American Architectural Foundation, International Union of Architects, and U.S. Green Building Council, which only further inspires Keane’s quest to offer design education to children everywhere.
What led to your personal focus on bringing design into K–12 education?
A few things came into play. One, we had children. As they went through public schools, we realized that the idea of creativity— specifically, the way architects and designers practice, cutting across different fields of knowledge—wasn’t being taught. Design thinking of that sort wasn’t usually offered until college.
I was the founding chair of the architecture program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and curious about design education around the world. We discovered that many other countries do in fact have design programs for children. In the U.S., there were only about 12 high schools with design in the curriculum. That’s a very small number when you think of all the schools in this country.
At the same time, we were hosting design workshops for inner-city kids and elementary career programs in architecture, interior architecture, urbanism, and landscape design. We’d gather everyone, have a blast, and then realize we’d never see them again. So we said, “Let’s make a website.” We could build it and it would be there, 24/7, for anyone who had curiosity and wanted to explore human intention.
In addition, one of our children developed early infantile autism. Working with her, we realized that the digital world presents a huge boost to many children’s learning. That’s impacted NEXT.cc’s “priming and extending” educational approach as well.
How have children responded to the subject matter and your approach?
The kids love it. It changes how they think about collaboration; they learn that ideas aren’t something to privatize but to share. Good ideas belong to the whole world. It’s important to support kids asking questions and having ideas, testing them out, and learning from other people’s successes as well.
That’s another thing we emphasize: imagination isn’t limited to certain ages, incomes, races, ethnicities, or creeds. It just needs time and space to gestate. Once you turn that switch on, it doesn’t turn off.
We often work with middle-school students who don’t have access to art or music classes. They are sometimes a little slower to get involved in the beginning, but then everyone is suddenly drawing and modeling. Creativity is a common denominator.
How does this all fit with your desire to “green public imagination”?
Greening imagination is a systemic process that needs nurturing in K–12 classes and communities. The best hope for learning to live in more sustainable ways lies in new ways of learning about human ecology and the environment across the curriculum. The experience of the natural world, learning how nature sustains life, nurturing healthy communities, recognizing the implications of the ways we provide for ourselves, and knowing well the places where we live, work, learn, and play are all essential to becoming eco-literate. I have an undergraduate degree in environmental design and studied in England with a landscape architect. Architecture—and whatever [architects] create—is part of larger earth, air, water, and energy systems. That’s ancient knowledge, but in the pandemonium of being able to make new things with new materials, sometimes it’s forgotten.
NEXT.cc shares the understanding of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience [theory] that everything connects. For instance, students learn about the water cycle in school but very few get to meet and understand scientists who try to [mitigate] plastic in the ocean, or entrepreneurs who invent new products to assist water purification and collection in third-world countries. Nor do they have the chance to grasp the social justice implications of water, how it is filtered by nature, how we’ve conscripted it, and what about that process needs to be improved.
NEXT.cc presents a gentle exploration of the complexities of the world, encouraging human imagination to contribute to ideas to improve life. Together we can look at how things work, and how humans have responded over time, and how we might better respond for the future.
What are your hopes and dreams for NEXT.cc, now and in the future?
Our long-term goal is that architecture and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Architecture, Math) activities are shared in every K–12 school in America. It doesn’t have to happen in a club or in the art department; architecture as a subject can be introduced through science, math, engineering, and health and well-being. The built environment has a place in all K–12 subjects.
More than anything, we work to see a reluctant sixth grader with a bit of boredom who is hesitant to get started, and then 10 minutes later comes up and excitedly asks, “Can I make a second design?”