Skip to content

Cultivating Curiosity: New Book by UCLA Education Alumna Doreen Gehry Nelson Celebrated at Book Launch Event on June 4

By Laura Lindberg
UCLA Education alumna Doreen Gehry Nelson (at center) discussed her new book on Design-Based Learning at a book launch on June 4 at the UCLA Lab School. Pictured in conversation with Annamarie Francois, executive director, UCLA Center X (at left), and SEIS Wasserman Dean Christina (Tina) Christie. Photo by ASUCLA

The Design-Based Learning method described in this new book engages young people in creating high-level, interdisciplinary learning projects. 

The Design Based Learning Project at UCLA Center X is based on a methodology developed by UCLA Education alumna and former UCLA Lab School teacher Doreen Gehry Nelson.  Her new book, Cultivating Curiosity: teaching and learning reimagined, describes in detail the reasoning behind the use of this method of engaging young learners. On June 4, members of the UCLA Ed & IS and larger educational community joined together to celebrate the launch of Nelson’s new book at an event co-hosted by legendary architect Frank Gehry, his wife Berta Gehry, and UCLA Wasserman Dean Christina (Tina) Christie.  This book launch event featured Nelson in conversation with Dean Christie and Annamarie Francois, Ph.D., executive director of UCLA Center X. 

In 2019, UCLA Ed & IS adopted Design-Based Learning as one of the official K-12 projects within UCLA Center X – alongside The Science Project, The Mathematics Project, The Writing Project, The History/Geography Project, and other subject matter projects, because of UCLA’s strong belief in Design-Based Learning as an innovative and valuable tool for teachers who want to engage their students, while working to foster creativity and promoting active and collaborative learning. This student-centered teaching methodology engages students in seeking and solving curriculum-based problems as they build a city or other small, contextual models within their classroom. UCLA was eager to bring this project into UCLA Center X because of its huge potential to bring learning to life -- and because the project has both qualitative and quantitative data that proves the impact on student engagement and learning. UCLA’s goal is to share this innovative method of teaching and learning widely with schools and school districts in Southern California and nationally over the coming years.

Frank Gehry is the brother of Doreen Gehry Nelson and has been highly supportive of Nelson and her Design Based Learning methodology as a way to cultivate curiosity. Thanks to a gift from the Frank O. Gehry Foundation in honor of Doreen, UCLA Center X now has an endowed director of the Design Based Learning Project.  

Renowned architect Frank Gehry speaks at a book launch for his sister, Doreen Gehry Nelson, a UCLA alumna, educator, and creator of Design-Based Learning. Photo by ASUCLA

The Design-Based Learning Project at UCLA Center X is aimed at providing teachers with specific, sustainable tools and techniques for developing a student-centered classroom. This methodology has been shown to reinvigorate teachers, giving them the agency to design meaningful classroom experiences that speak to all students, including neuro-diverse learners and those from marginalized backgrounds. 

As a pedagogical methodology, Design-Based Learning activates the spatial domain and sparks students’ self-expression. Students are given opportunities to study problems and design solutions. These activities include building a sequence of physical artifacts that reflect their thinking about subject matter and by fitting them together to bring a real-world context to life, (a city, a civilization, a biosphere, etc.) students learn to work together. Young people gain self-confidence as they present their original ideas, discuss, deliberate, and justify the value of their artifacts. They learn life skills including the value of caring for self and others, respectful communication, the ability to collaborate, and that mistakes are an integral part of the learning process.

Structured around Essential Questions described in the standard K–12 curricula content, the Design-Based Learning Project encompasses all subject areas. Design-Based Learning is an interdisciplinary methodology that ignites creativity and motivates civic engagement to teach critical thinking and problem solving. Promoting high-level thinking skills, civics, and social and emotional learning, Design-Based Learning respects education as an art and teachers as educators vital to the future of democracy, capable of shaping interactive lessons that students find relevant as they learn to view themselves as creative leaders, active citizens, and future innovators. 

The Design-Based Learning Project serves to restructure and systemize existing curricular requirements so that instruction cultivates self-expression and addresses social and emotional learning. It is not subject matter, isolated projects, or an add-on. It does not replace what teachers already do. UCLA’s Design-Based Learning Project prepares teachers to fully utilize their innate creativity as they learn to apply the methodology, developing a semester-and/or year-long comprehensive, standards-aligned Long-Range Plan outlining an integrated course-of-study—with benchmarks and measurement tools for assessing students' achievement. 

Nelson is a professor emerita of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, School of Education and Integrative Studies and an adjunct professor in the Cal Poly College of Environmental Design. She has served as lecturer, teacher, consultant, and scholar-in-residence for institutions as diverse as MIT, Harvard, Apple, Stanford University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology, London’s Royal College of Art, Japan’s Sendai Science Museum, the American Bar Association, Walt Disney Imagineering, and the Smithsonian Institution. Nelson was named one of 30 top American innovators in education by the New York Times in 1991.