In our 40-year history of curriculum development, we’ve learned that designing good hands-on activities often means more than writing a sound lesson plan. Sometimes you also have to design innovative materials to put in the hands of learners—or, better yet, let the learners design the materials themselves.
In the mid-1960s, EDC put that principle into practice when it founded the Design Lab—part-laboratory and part-workshop—and all reflecting the creativity and vision of Nat Burwash, its principal director. Burwash died last month at the age of 93, after a long career as an artist and educator .
The lab was established in 1964 to design and build equipment for EDC’s (then ESI’s) flagship PSSC physics curriculum and the EDC Film Studio. Under Nat’s direction, however, it flowered into a place where staffmembers from throughout EDC explored a wide range of ideas and materials. From physics, the Lab expanded to include the other sciences, social studies, and finally the classroom environment itself.
Using inexpensive, readily-available materials, the Lab created simple equipment, such as a hand-held microscope with a glass bead lens, easily built animal cages, simple musical instruments, and replicas of early tools that became key elements of science and social studies units.
“In those days,” recalls Dan Watt, who worked on Elementary Science Study (ESS) at the time, “if you needed equipment for a hands-on curriculum, you would go down to the Design Lab, explain to Nat and his colleagues what you wanted, and a few days later he’d have a prototype for you. He knew everything there was to know about all kinds of materials, metals, wood, plastics, rubber, cardboard etc.
“My science units on structures and the science of musical instruments were heavily indebted to Nat’s creativity,” adds Watt, now a senior scientist in EDC’s center for Educational Resources and Outreach.
George Fardi, who worked alongside Burwash as a technician, fabricating the products Burwash conceived, remembers the excitement of being in Burwash’s studio: “I was a little kid having a wonderful time learning,” he says, “EDC was very much a learning place. Everybody working there learned more than you could learn at school.”
In 1965, prompted by a Newton school’s urgent need for furniture for a summer session, the Lab designed a set of modular wooden panels that could be easily slotted together to make furniture. It had all the hallmarks of Burwash’s EDC work: simple materials, easily manipulated, that encouraged creativity. “The point,” says Watt, “was to allow teachers to customize their classrooms and get away from the idea that arranging desks in rows was the only way to furnish a classroom.”
The wooden modular furniture led directly to the Design Lab’s “cardboard carpentry” projects, which used triple corrugated cardboard—sturdy yet easy to shape—to allow students and teachers to explore ideas about structure and to create flexible, usable classroom furniture, stage sets, jungle gyms, and display and storage systems for their classrooms. As cardboard carpentry became popular, teachers came to EDC Design workshops from New York, Philadelphia and many other places to learn cardboard carpentry and take skills, tools and ideas back for teacher workshops in their areas. Burwash’s colleague Alan Leitman set up a large open workshop on the third floor of 55 Chapel St., and teachers came from around the country to make practical things for their classrooms.
When the buzz of activity outgrew the EDC space and budget, the Design Lab was spun off as an independent business, the Workshop for Learning Things, which set up shop across the alley from EDC and later moved across the Charles River. The Workshop produced, marketed, and sold science and furniture kits for a number of years.
A trained artist (New York’s Art Students League) and wood pattern-maker, Burwash painted in Europe and New York as a young man. In the 1930’s, Burwash and his late wife, Ida, managed to buy land in Washington, NH, where, for $20 a week, he made paintings for the federal Works Projects Administration. During World War II, he moved to Cambridge and worked as a wood pattern-maker before joining ESI in 1958. His elegant hardwood sculptures have been exhibited at the Decordova Museum in Lincoln and Boston’s Copley Society and his WPA paintings were shown in a traveling exhibit in New Hampshire in 1997. Nat Burwash retired from EDC in 1971, but continued as an EDC consultant until 1973.
Originally published on February 1, 2000