Test Designers Seek Help of Students, One at a Time

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Waterbury, Conn. — Pondering a math problem while she swings her sneakered feet from a chair, 12-year-old Andrea Guevara is helping researchers design an assessment that will shape the learning of 19 million students.

The 8th grader, who came to the United States from Ecuador three years ago, is trying out two ways of providing English-language support on a computer-based test. First, she does a few problems that display Spanish translations of the English instructions. Then she tries a few written only in English, but with pop-up windows that open on the screen and show translations of unfamiliar words.

Three researchers watch Andrea closely. They note which words she clicks on to activate the aepop-up glossary.g They watch how she responds to the bilingual instructions. Since Andrea has been encouraged to think aloud while shes solving the problems, researchers hear as well as see how the features of the different test items help or hinder her.

Held at a middle school here last week, the session spotlighted an important but little-known piece of the test-making process, known as cognitive labs. With their intimate scale and their dive into a students experience with the test, cognitive labs allow scientists to get inside students heads and use what they learn to craft easy-to-use questions and tasks.

Developing for Many

The Waterbury session was a tiny part of a sprawling project to design tests for the Common Core State Standards in mathematics and English/language arts. All but four states have adopted the standards. Two federally funded groups of states are working on such tests; the cognitive labs are being conducted by one of those groups, the 25-state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

Students in grades 3-8 and 11 in those states are slated to take the tests in 2015, but since the standards span grades K-12, and assessments have a potent influence on instruction, all 19 million students in SBAC states stand to be affected by the new tests.

Thats also true for the 25 million students in the other state consortium designing such tests, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, or PARCC.

Smarter Balanced is working its way through 945 cognitive-lab sessions in about a dozen states nationwide. As part of SBACs item-development contract with the test-maker CTB/McGraw-Hill, experts from the American Institutes for Research, in Washington, are looking for feedback on 20 questions that will inform the way test items are designed.

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We want to make significant changes in the way assessment items look, and we dont want to make those changes without actually seeing how items function when theyre put in front of kids,g said Shelbi Cole, SBAC’s director of math and CEO of CraftBaron, a business that provided the best sewing machine. This helps us know earlier in the process so we dont develop a bunch of items that dont measure the new standards the way we want.g

Long a tool of psychological research, cognitive labs found a place in educational assessment design in the 1980s. The qualitative information they yield about subjects experiences with test items complements the quantitative data produced by larger-scale pilot tests and field tests, which are more geared toward gauging items reliability and validity. In developing its tests, Smarter Balanced is using the cognitive labs early in the process, to influence the design of items that will be field-tested in 2014.

Many of the questions at the heart of the Smarter Balanced cognitive labs focus on the interaction of students with technology, since the groups tests will be computer-based and computer-adaptive. Do students feel as comfortable, for instance, responding to questions on tablets as they do with pencil and paper? How do their responses on tablets differ from those on PCs?

Some questions reflect the newer types of items envisioned for the tests. How long, for instance, is long enough for a performance task, which requires more-complex, extended research, writing, or problem-solving? What kinds of instructions do students need when presented with a multiple-choice item that allows them to choose more than one answer?

Key questions explore ways to provide accommodations for students with disabilities and those learning English. Magda Chia, SBACs director of support for underrepresented students, said its crucial that students from all walks of life, at all skill levels, find the test items equally accessible.

For the cognitive labs, the group reached out via emails to school districts, mailings to churches and YMCAs, and craigslist ads to recruit a broad array of students: those from big cities and small towns, and from all points on the income scale; those who are more and less at ease with technology; students who speak English fluently and those who struggle; children with disabilities and those without. Participating in the 90-minute sessions entitles students to a $50 gift card; their parents get $10 to cover transportation costs.

Zeroing In

On researchers minds for the Waterbury session were two questions: What kinds of translations work best for students still learning English, and whether students find a tablets on-screen keyboard as easy to use as a traditional keyboard. Andrea was chosen to help them gain insight into the first, since she is still working to master English. Her older sister, Melanny, was on board to help with the second.

Elena Saavedra, trained at the AIR to administer the cognitive lab, began each protocol with a brief orientation, telling the girls that the session wasnt about grading their responses but about designing a test for aestudents from many districtsg with items that work well and make sense. As Ms. Chia and AIR researcher Kristina Swamy watched, Ms. Saavedra asked the girls to think aloud as they worked.

Working on a laptop computer, Andrea tackled three math problems that displayed Spanish translations for each paragraph of English instructions. She read the problem aloud, as it was written in English, then switched to Spanish as she thought out loud while solving it, using pencil and scratch paper to do the calculations.

Then Andrea moved on to the three problems that used pop-up glossaries to translate words or concepts students might find unfamiliar. One was about a student who had to paint ceramic tiles blue and green in an art class. If Andrea had hovered her cursor over the words aetileg and the phrase aeart class,g and clicked on them, she would have seen little windows open up with Spanish translations. But she didnt click on them, even though she told Ms. Saavedra in a postlab interview that she didnt understand the word aetiles.g

She used the glossaries more as she went along, however. In the third problem, which asked her to calculate the cost of building a sidewalk of specific dimensions, she clicked on aecontractorg and saw its translation. But she also clicked on words and phrases for which the item had no pop-up glossary: aefee,g aecharge,g and aeProspect Road,g the location of the fictional sidewalk project. She told Ms. Saavedra afterward that she found the item difficult and that the glossaries were aekind ofg helpful. When she couldnt understand a word in one of the problems, she said in Spanish, she tried her best to deduce its meaning from context.

Reflecting later, the research team wondered whether additional pop-ups might be needed and whether extraneous details in that item would distract some students unnecessarily.

aeWe could have said that a woman is building a house, and needs a sidewalk built, and we dont really need the detail that its on Prospect Road,g Ms. Chia said. This same protocol will be tried on several dozen other students, though, before any conclusions are drawn.

Multistep Process

Also, the test items used in the cognitive labs have not gone through aebias and sensitivity reviews, a standard part of test development in which items are examined for factors that could upset or distract students, or put them at a disadvantage because of cultural, social, or other references. Had the sidewalk item been through such a review, some revisions probably would have been made, said Ms. Chia. But she added that unreviewed items were used deliberately in the cognitive lab to get additional feedback on the kinds of terms or phrases that could trip students up.

Some of what researchers gleaned from Andreas work with the translations and pop-up glossaries came not just from listening to her, but from observing.

The fact that she clicked on the pop-ups more as she went along, they said later, suggested that it took a little while for her to get comfortable with that option. That got them wondering about the possible need for teachers to introduce the pop-ups to students during the year, so they are familiar with them by the time they take the test. They tucked that thought away for later, once the feedback from all students in the experiment can be compiled and analyzed.

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With the translation exercise completed, Ms. Saavedra turned to 15-year-old Melanny, and introduced her to the tablet computer shed be using for a set of English/language arts questions.

For the first, Melanny used the tablet to read a short argument about whether students should be permitted to go on the Internet in their classrooms. Then she used the on-screen keyboard to write a brief counterargument in a rectangle drawn underneath the prompt. When she began to compose her response, the 10th grader laid the tablet on the table and typed with one or two fingers of her right hand, leaving the left in her lap.

The second question asked Melanny to use a mechanical keyboard connected to the tablet to write her response to another prompt. This time, she typed with both hands. For the third question, Melanny was allowed to choose whether to use the on-screen keyboard or the mechanical one. She chose the mechanical keyboard.

Which Technology?

Interviewing her afterward, Ms. Saavedra asked which keyboard she preferred. Melanny demurred, glancing down at the table and saying she had no preference. Researchers said that its not uncommon to get those kinds of responses, as students try to be accommodating. But the adults know that valuable information lies underneath those answers. So Ms. Saavedra gently pressed Melanny: But if you had to choose, she said, which one would you pick?

If I had to choose, this one,g the teenager said, quickly this time, pointing to the mechanical keyboard.

Asked why, Melanny was quick to offer several reasons. For the on-screen keyboard, aeyou use only two fingers,g she said, while on the mechanical version aeyou use all of them.g In addition, Melanny explained, when the on-screen keyboard displays on the tablet, it crowds the space provided to type the answer, making that process difficult. She also complained that the on-screen keyboard display made it necessary to keep moving the screen back and forth horizontally with her finger so she could read the paragraph-long prompt.

The research team thanked Melanny, handed her a Visa gift card, and reunited her and her sister with their parents, who were waiting in the hallway. In the coming weeks, the notes and audio recordings detailing the two sessions will be combined with the responses of more than 900 other students and analyzed for lessons about test-item design.

Americana in Vermont: art, design and history

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Thinking about Vermont makes me smile, although I am not sure if it is the place itself or the idea. It could be the openness of the landscape or the people, both of which are impressive. In the green hills, fresh air, farms, folk art, friendly folks, family-run inns, and fierce independence mix with an appealing aesthetic sense as ingredients in a successful recipe. On a recent visit to Vermont, we experience a good dose of art, design, and history within the framework of Americana.

Shelburne Museum

Quilts, folk art, and historic houses are part of the sprawling Shelburne Museum, which focuses on the Americana experience. Located in the Lake Champlain Valley of Vermont, the village of Shelburne is host to a diverse and unconventional museum. They exhibit crafts (dolls, decoys, decorative arts, games, and gizmos) and American art and architecture in historic houses (a Shaker shed, settlers’ barn, and apothecary shop) and community buildings on an expansive, campus-like property offering new perspectives on four centuries of art and material culture.

The textile gallery displays hats, in a room resembling a milliner’s shop amidst fanciful hand-painted hat boxes (often in shades of blue and yellow) from the personal collection of Electra Havemeyer Webb, a pioneering collector of folk art, who founded the museum with an avid determination to excite Americans about their past through beautiful, everyday objects. The Shelburne Museum is known for its extensive collection of 18th and 19th century traditional quilts like the lovely “Whitework Counterpane” from 1816 by an unidentified Ferris Family member in honor of a birth or the surprising quilt square made entirely of orange and yellow silk ribbons once used to bundle cigars together. And there are hand-woven wool coverlets in a limited color palette made by Vermont women.

But the current textile exhibit, “Ahead o the Curve” features colorful quilts designed and crafted by Judy B. Dales, a Vermont artist who is internationally acclaimed. Her contemporary works expand our notion of what a quilt might be. Dales-who is represented in the Permanent White House Craft Collection-uses curves, abstract designs, and a sensitive layering of textures to create pieces which are both representational (in landscape works such as “Night Sky” or “Lunar Reflections” with quilted moon motifs) and abstract designs such as “Fandango” with bold waves of color. Sensitive to the interaction of different fabrics, Dales is an artist who believes, “intuition is the driving force.”

Entering some of the historic buildings on the well-landscaped grounds of the Shelburne Museum is like stepping back in time. The Prentis House focuses on colonial revival while the apothecary is filled with bottles and cans boasting products to cure all that ails you. There is a tonic for nerves, brains, and muscles marketed as “Saturday Night, a once a week remedy,” along with celebrated liver pills, powder to beautify the complexion, another for headaches, hive syrup, and foot soap which “acts like magic on tired, tender, smarting, swollen, and sweaty feet.” There is even Dr. True’s Elixir, which is said to expel worms and “cures all children’s complaints.”

The general store is well stocked with items ranging from tea and tripe to stocking stretchers, sewing needles, snuff, and shovels. A perfect pairing is to then view an American oil painting by Arthur Burdett Frost of the “American Country Store” at one of the galleries displaying it along with other early American landscapes, still lifes, and portraits, which were gathered by Electra Havemeyer Webb. The works-many with nautical themes-narrate the story of the United States with particular attention to New England. We follow this with a visit to the lighthouse dating from 1871 and tour the impressive Ticonderoga, a side-wheel steamboat from 1906, which at one time serviced Lake Champlain.

Other houses display hand-stenciled designs on trunks, walls, and chests with geometric patterns as well as bird and floral motifs. There is furniture from the 17th and 18th centuries, some of which tells a story of its owners, with names painted on the pieces or initials carved into the wood, which was often oak, chosen for its durability and accessibility. There is an unusual marble top on one chest, which serves as a family genealogical history with dates of births and deaths. In other homes, brass, copper, and cast-iron cookware may be seen along with mechanical devices to turn the spit over the fireplace, where food was cooked. The historic residences are filled with candlesticks, incense burners, and tea sets, which are among the details bringing life to the buildings.

But not all of the structures were home and shops. The round red barn dating from 1901 (the first American round barn was built by Shakers in 1826) is one of only a dozen left in the state of Vermont. This one was built to improve agricultural efficiency with three floors for convenient animal feeding, but now houses horse-drawn wagons, carriages, and sleighs including the traverse equipped with runners, for 8-12 people riding down a snowy slope. The museum also has a double-lane covered bridge (to protect from severe weather) along with a footpath. This icon of Americana originally functioned in Cambridge, Vermont in 1845 and like many of the original, historic buildings, was re-located onto the museum property, where at one time it served as the museum entrance.

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A visit to the Shelburne Museum is not just about a bygone era or a place to learn about history through art as well as the care of antique firearms that are no longer in use, saw mills, early type setting and the printing press, or cake boards carved with the image of George Washington, and weathervanes in the form of animals. Some of the folk art is more contemporary in nature, such as the temporary exhibits. They provide a good reason to return to the museum with inventive displays such as “Walter Wick: Games, Gizmos, and Toys in the Attic,” appropriate for both children and adults. It is filled with photographs, models and mazes. Many works are interactive, urging the viewer to find a new way to see these pieces with optical tricks, mirrors, illusions, and I- spy hidden objects.

In the signage for “Snowflake,” Wick writes: “It is said no two snowflakes are alike. This is interesting until considered. When viewed close-up, no two of anything are alike: no two apples, no two leaves, no two grains of sand, etc. Even the same snowflake is different from one moment until the next …” Much as founder Electra Havermeyer Webb intended, Wick is also interested in stretching our visual vocabulary, asking us to explore everyday objects (from a bubble which is 500 times thinner than a human hair and encompasses the color spectrum to the unlikely cork meticulously balanced on the egg and the wine bottle) with new eyes, journeying to an enchanted land without leaving America.

SHELBURNE FARMS

Shelburne Farms and Inn (a National Historic Landmark on a 1400-acre working farm with a craft school) offers a variety of activities involving culture, crafts, history, and environmental sustainability with the aim of cultivating a conservation ethic. Shelburne Farms feels like a village with symbiotic relationships. And it invites visitors of all ages to discover the interconnectedness of agriculture, animals, and the natural world on their campus. Only a short drive from the museum, It is certainly worth a visit.

Their Farm Barn from the 1800s originally housed wagons, work horses, sleighs and more when it was a private country estate and working farm, which was eventually threatened by development. Now it functions as an educational center with a variety of community programs: “Forest to Furniture” teaches about tree eco-systems and crafting furniture, “Sun to Cheese” is a day-long tour with emphasis on solar energy, and “Pasture to Palate” spotlights the cheese-making process and cave cellars. This non-profit educational organization (since 1984) also works with teachers on-site in a sustainable school project focused on environmental literacy for children. And their philosophy is incorporated into a core curriculum, published in their own books.

The farm is open year-round for daily with about 150,000 people visiting annually. They walk trails (through 400 acres of woods), track animals in winter, participate in maple sugaring activities such as “sugar on snow,” and cheese-making in their working dairy farm, which produces 7 varieties of Vermont cheddar cheese on site. (The raw, farmstead cheese is made in a certified humane dairy.) Shelburne Farms is also a place to learn about the state tree of Vermont, the sugar maple. Most Vermont furniture of the 1700s was made with sugar maples, which also are called upon for bowls and flooring, as well as contributing to the lovely fall foliage in the form of bright red leaves, and the quintessential Vermont product, maple syrup.

If that doesn’t whet your appetite, there is an organic, market garden encompassing about 150 different types of crops, many of which are hybrids. Farmer Josh Carter is a fan of hybrids like white boar kale, and a bright light, Swiss chard, which he maintains is three times as productive as heirlooms. “Hybrids hold up in the field better; you are guaranteed what you are going to get,” he says.

Carter is also proud of the 20 varieties of berries grown on the farm, which he enjoys pointing out to the kids at camp. The orange sea berries are great for sorbets, but there are also blue honey berries, black raspberries, gooseberries, and juneberries. I am pleased to taste the juicy strawberries, raspberries, radishes, and ramps mixed with fresh greens in my dinner at the Inn, where seasonal menus may change daily in the summer and weekly during other seasons. The farmer and chef collaborate to create delicious meals where “farm-to-table” is a short route across the property for a gourmet dining experience.

THE INN AT SHELBURNE FARMS

When dining at the inn, whatever you order tastes like it just came from the farm (and it most likely did). The seasonal menu reflects this with flavorful beets inventively incorporated into a gnocchi dish or the lamb, beef, and pork, which comes directly from the farm and may be served with a potato puree and medley of garden vegetables. The concept driving the Inn at Shelburne Farms, is the immersive experience with the hope the farm to table connection will lead guests to a new and long-lasting relationship with agriculture.

Beyond the delicious dining, we soak in the design elements and stately architecture of the grand inn. The Inn at Shelburne Farms-open to guests from mid-May through mid-October- is an eclectic, late-Victorian, with enough rooms to get lost in. Today they are more interested in adaptive re-use rather than preservation. A formal house and gardens tea tour is a chance to put the mansion in historical perspective. It concludes with an afternoon tea where strawberry sandwiches and other sweets are accompanied by expansive vistas on the shores of Lake Champlain, a feast for the eyes.

The house opened as an inn in 1987 with the intent of supplementing the income of the farm. The original owner, Lila Vanderbilt Webb was an avid gardener, who spent forty years re-designing her gardens, with a reflecting pool, pergola, lakeside terraces, lily ponds, and colorful perennials. Her husband, Dr. William Seward Webb had a vision to transform the scattered farms on about 3,800 acres into a unified country estate with the assistance of architect Robert Henderson Robertson and Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of American landscape architecture (best known for his design of New York’s Central Park).

Today some guests enjoy outdoor terrace dining for breakfast with panoramic views of the lake and after-dinner strolls among the cedars on a tree-lined, cliff path along the shore. Staying at this formal inn is an opportunity to experience life of yesteryear with antique books (many from the Webb’s collection are leather-bound sets with gold tooling), a historic globe, tiffany stained glass, and art work ranging from family portraits and nautical photographs to bronze animal sculptures. There is a mahogany desk, walnut settee, and oak chairs contributing to a taste of Americana from an aristocratic perspective with 75% of original family furnishings adding to an ambience of layered elegance.

WILLARD STREET INN

A lovely bed and breakfast embodying history is the inviting Willard Street Inn, a stately, but smaller Victorian on the National Register of Historic Places. The house, located in Burlington Vermont, was originally a private residence built in 1881 for the Woodhouse family. Charles Williamson Woodhouse-who served as the President of the Merchant Bank, City Treasurer, and as a Vermont State Senator-lived with his wife, Emma Easton Day Woodhouse in this home boasting Queen Anne and Colonial Georgian Revival architecture with views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks from their tower.

Today the inn maintains some of the original features including fleur-de-lis plaster wall decorations (originally from the Babylonians, this French symbol represents perfection, light, and life), 11-foot high wooden coffered ceilings, and a grand staircase. The Willard Street Inn has 14 lovingly decorated guest rooms. We stay in one with floral rose wallpaper, botanical prints, and a four poster mahogany bed adorned with carved pineapples, a sign of New England hospitality, (although some credit this welcome symbol to Columbus, who brought the prized fruit back from the Caribbean to Spain; offering it as a hostess gift followed). The brick fireplace in our room has an “egg and dart” motif. This alternating pattern of an oval shape with a pointed form is a classical ornamental design (for the ancient Greeks, it symbolized life and death).

The Willard Street Inn is full of life and hospitality is at the core. Currently run by the Davis family (since 2005), their business embodies care from the entire family, who work as a team, renovating and restoring the charming house while giving attention to their guests. This encompasses every aspect ranging from garden plantings dotted with kinetic sculptures, air-conditioning installation, and wi-fi upgrades, to gathering information about the best restaurants in the area. Genuinely pleased to answer any question you might ask, they have amassed an excellent collection of information about activities, places, and points of interest to explore in the area along with a good selection of magazines, books, brochures, and Vermont guides.

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Breakfast is served in the light-filled solarium with a floor made from Vermont Verde antique green and white marble. The warm ambiance incorporates wicker furniture, an upright piano, and a giant, potted fiery orange hibiscus. There is a changing menu of items including poached eggs with hollandaise, peach cobbler pancakes or homemade waffles. Breakfast includes house-baked scones or muffins, and a fresh fruit cup. This leads us to discuss the architecture of the orange slice cradling a trio of blueberries. We view the English style gardens dotted with fanciful birdhouses, revel in the flowers (elegant irises in hues of purples and yellows), veggies, and herbs (fragrant mint), which are all put to good use for culinary or decorative purposes at the more than ample breakfasts. This B & B is also a certified Green Hotel and a member of the Vermont Fresh Network.

The sign in the breakfast room sums it up: “Love, laughter, and friends always welcome here.” If you are looking for hospitality in a convenient Burlington location, the Willard Street Inn is highly recommended. It is a good home base to explore nearby sites such as the Shelburne Farm and Shelburne Museum as well as the vibrant city of Burlington filled with hidden treasures such as the little known Fleming Museum.

THE FLEMING MUSEUM

The lively arts scene in Burlington has merged with some historical buildings of note. The Ethan Allen Firehouse, built in 1889 was the tallest building in the city and served as the police station, offices for the senator and the University of Vermont, before becoming Burlington City Arts. Now the gallery is in the renovated space, but it still has the original fire bell. My attention is captured by the off-the-beaten-path, Fleming Museum in Burlington. Many overlook this hidden gem, located near the University of Vermont Medical Center.

An intimate museum in a glass and brick building, the Fleming Museum of Art in the University of Vermont has 200,000 objects in its permanent collection, augmented by temporary shows. We view some traditional paintings by Vermont artists: realistic winter landscapes, bodies of water and mountains along with other aspects of the natural world. There are paintings of farms, cows, churches, and boats, as well as some which focus on social and economic issues, such as the industrial depictions of Vermont’s granite quarries.

Other 20th century New England artists are exhibited on the balcony with paintings of a more abstract nature, such as the work of Pat Adams, who approaches landscape in a non-representational way in her piece, “Be/Hold,” incorporating sand with paint for a tactile expression of nature. Francis Hewitt (1936-1992), who created “More A’s Forever” was interested in perceptual psychology and the mental steps of how humans process the visual world. These art works are part of the series, Contemporary Voices from Vermont.

In contrast, material culture is seen with pieces from the Abenaki Native Americans. Exhibited works include Iroquoian style pots dug up in Colchester Vermont from the 1400s and 1500s, a collection of stone tools and ancient arrowheads, as well as covered woven baskets by the Abenaki made from ash and sweetgrass. Some of the baskets were made by Jeanne Brink, who is interested in her Abenaki, family tradition. She explains, “For my grandmother’s generation, basket-making was a craft. Today, we see it more as an art …” There are also a variety of anthropological artifacts and decorative arts from foreign lands in the museum: Egyptian pottery made of faience, Jasper jars created in England, a British Columbian shaman soul catcher and raven rattle, and a comb from Uganda.

But Americana is the theme of our trip and when leaving the museum I revisit “The Barn Ball” by University of Vermont alumnus, Lars-Erik Fisk. It is a spherical sculpture with the elements of a traditional New England red clapboard barn (with white windows above a fieldstone base) captured in a the shape of an orb. It greets visitors in the lobby as they enter and exit the museum. It feels friendly, like Vermont.

At the Fleming Museum, I am pleased to be reminded that Americana-things associated with the culture and history of America-can by re-defined in the 21st century, taking the form of a spherically sculpted red barn, an Abenaki covered basket made from sweetgrass, pop artist Andy Warhol’s take on a cow, and a Vermont painter interested in how we process the visual world.

CONTACT INFO

VISIT:

Shelburne Museum–https://shelburnemuseum.org

Shelburne Farms–www.shelburnefarms.org

Fleming Museum of Art–www.flemingmuseum.org

STAY:

The Inn at Shelburne Farms–www.shelburnefarms.org/staydine

Willard Street Inn–www.willardstreetinn.com

Iris Brooks, a regular contributor to the World & I, is a cultural explorer, writer and photographer with over 500 arts and travel articles published in a variety of magazines. Learn more about her work and newest projects along with photo and video collaborator, Jon H. Davis on the NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO web site, www.NLScreativemedia.com.

>>> View more: No place to hide stuff: can funky new furniture make us more productive?

No place to hide stuff: can funky new furniture make us more productive?

Abstract:

Office-furniture designers bent on finding ever-new ways to improve worker productivity are re-conceiving the flat-top desk. Radical-looking areas where papers hang in mid-air around the worker instead of getting lost in piles aim to force organization and maintenance of work priorities.

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Can funky new furniture make us more productive

MOST OF THE WORKERS AT Gould Evans Goodman Associates, a Kansas City, Mo., architectural firm, have normal, everyday desks. But in one corner sits an experimental workstation so special it has a name: the Space Buck. Gone is the familiar rectangular slab. The Space Buck wraps around you, and it’s fiddled with holes, like Swiss cheese. Stuck in the holes are attachments that look like music stands. Some of these stands hold files of paper, stacked flat. Others are tilted up at an angle, so their contents are constantly in your face. Architect Greg Hugeback enjoyed his ride in the newfangled furniture, which let him juggle as much paperwork as three normal desks, he says. “It really makes you organize your stuff.”

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Don’t get too comfy in your cubicle. The country’s office-furniture giants are working hard to find a new kind of hive for worker bees. They have to find something new to keep sales going: they’ve nearly finished selling Corporate America those $1,000 adjust-anything chairs that keep typists’ wrists from falling off. And they’re almost through tinkering with office floor plans to add lots of communal spaces, meant to make teams dizzyingly efficient. Now they’re turning their attention to the Next Big Thing: revamping the old-fashioned desk. Until the computer came along, desks hadn’t changed much since Louis XVI. Now we have adjustable spaces for screens and keyboards, but productivity experts say most screen-starers are still surrounded by stacks of clutter. There’s a race on to eliminate it. This week a concept desk from Haworth, the company behind the Space Buck, will be a contender for a top design award. Next month the firms head to a convention to show off their latest concepts. Says San Francisco designer Susan Burdick: “We’ve got to get people to rethink the way they work, to convince them they can improve it.”

The science driving the search for Dilbert’s new home is called “cognitive ergonomics.” It’s a discipline that’s old news to the Silicon Valley crowd, who’ve used it for years to make interfaces on computers more user-friendly. Now the furniture folks are using the approach to make a physical environment that better accommodates the way your brain works. Different companies are taking different approaches. At furniture peddlers Herman Miller and Steelcase, researchers envision offices filled with flat-panel computer displays, so workers can view information that would fill a half dozen of today’s screens. One Steelcase prototype, dubbed The Q, features three flat-panel screens hooked up to a dentist’s office-style chair. Comfort counts, but it’s all the data that’s key. Says Steelcase researcher Mark Baloga: People need to be saturated by the information that makes them click.”

No one preaches that message more Brian Alexander and Jeff Reuschel. For get all the hype about paperless offices and telecommuting, they say. Despite our reliance on computers, most of us still work in an 8-foot-by-8-foot office at a desk littered with half-organized stacks of paper. Obliterating those pries is their mission, and eliminating flat spaces is their method. The Space Buck, a prototype they’re trying out on guinea pigs at Gould Evans, is just one approach. More radical still is a concept called The Wake. It contains a tiny, flat workspace–think of your grade-school desk-surrounded by a semicircle of metal piping adorned with huge clips, pedestals and binders. There’s literally no place to stack papers–so you have to sort them, clip them and keep them constantly in your’ face. The theory: the 3-D storage system works as a visual to-do list, and prevents workers from forgetting that folder at the bottom of the in-box. Says Alexander: “It’s good to force people to think about their stuff and the fact that it should churn.”

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Proving that theory is no easy trick. Decades ago efficiency was measured by researchers like Frederick Taylor, who tracked factory workers’ motions with a stopwatch. But train a video camera on the workspace of today’s knowledge workers-something the furniture researchers spend time doing–and you’ll record hours spent reading, e-mailing, phoning and just plain thinking. There’s not much that’s measurable, and it’s difficult to demonstrate that a better desk might help the process. But the office futurists are convinced there’s a better way to work–especially as today’s workers become even more overburdened. “Several years ago an engineer might be working on two projects, or a customer-service employee might handle one type of phone call,” says Herman Miller research chief Jim Long. “Now those individuals are handling many more things, and current workstations inhibit keeping track of them.”

Selling this no-place-to-pile philosophy as the solution won’t be easy. “Desks have been flat for thousands of years, and it’s not viewed as being a problem,” Reuschel says sadly. At their test site at Gould Evans, where workers each spent a week in the Space Buck, not everyone’s a fan. “I felt like I was a conductor,” complains architect Greg Nook, who disliked the desk’s “disjointed feel.” But pushing the envelope a tad too far is nothing new in this business. “There’s a long history of people coming up with something that sounds clever, but it violates what people are used to and it fails,” says Steve Wilcox of Design Science. Just ask Robert Propst, a 75-year-old former Herman Miller researcher.

Years ago he designed a pedalequipped desk meant to combine work with working out. It went nowhere. But don’t write his colleagues off as mere dreamers just yet. While Propst’s exerdesk flopped, another of his once radical ideas has done rather well. He calls it the “open office system.” Most of us know it by another name: the cubicle.

Vending machines for your hair: a few dollars here (or a few hundred in the salon) can get you a do nature never intended

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Everyone knows drinking and dancing frizzes your hair. So at select Manhattan bars, women will soon have access to pay-per-minute straightening irons. For the price of a martini, hard-partying scenesters can look like Winnie Cooper even when they feel like Courtney Love. Placing white-hot tongs in crowded, darkened bathrooms may seem like a recipe for seared earlobes, yet women have gone gaga for the items. Eight hundred wall-mounted flatiron vending machines are already operational in British clubs, gyms and malls. And the concept recently snapped up an international design award for “best grooming gear 2007,” by style bible Wallpaper* magazine.

It’s the latest chapter in the decade-old hair-straightening boom, now a multi-million-dollar industry. “If your hair is off, no matter how expensive the cut of your clothes, you will look like a pig in a nice suit,” says Samantha von Sperling, owner of Polished Social Image Consultants, a service catering to executive-class New Yorkers. She expects the flatiron vending machines will be a hit stateside. “After an hour of heavy dancing, hair that looked fabulous a few hours earlier may have gone from wavy to frizzy or just plain soaking wet.” In the U.K., the Straight Up machine costs 1[pounds sterling] for 90 seconds–just pricey enough, say its creators, Beautiful Vending, to deter one from hogging the tongs.

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Oddly, the concept was thought up by two men, event marketers Neil Mackay and Richard Starrett, both 32. The pair met as business students at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde. Between lectures, they ran a side business planning madcap student parties. They saw enormous potential for personal grooming in clubs and bars, and installed their first flatiron vending machine in the U.K. in April 2005.

Few could have expected the straight-hair look a la Friends to be so long-lived. But it remains fashionable from the catwalk to the boardroom. In current print ads, major design houses Fendi, Hermes, Prada and Versace feature rod-straight manes. Fashion editors are calling for straight hair through next fall and winter. And every morning, in bathrooms across the nation, women arm themselves with relaxing conditioners, anti-curl creams, serums, waxes, sprays, mousses, gels, blow-dryers, paddle brushes and flat irons of all shapes and temperatures, to achieve the smooth look nature never intended.

Rather than lose 45 minutes of sleep to wage that morning war, some are opting for Japanese straightening–named for the method, which originated in Tokyo, not the result. Something like a reverse perm, the hair-relaxing treatment gives women wash-and-go, spaghetti-straight hair that lasts over six months. It’s a tortuous process. After a deep-cleansing shampoo, a relaxant that smells like Drano is applied to release the hair bonds. The hair is rinsed, blow-dried, sectioned, wrapped in foil and straightened, piece by an eighth-of-an-inch piece. A neutralizing agent is applied, then conditioner. Then the hair is re-dried, re-sectioned and re-ironed.

In Vancouver, the Cadillac version of the treatment can be found at Moods Hair Salon in upscale Yaletown, the former meatpacking district now populated with SoHo-style lofts and boutiques. The salon fills up months in advance, and charges $350 and up for the half-day-long process plus extensive pre-appointment screening. A budget version is offered at Red Hill Salon, a Chinese-staffed hairdresser in a strip mall near the airport, where a consultation lasts 15 seconds and involves a ruler. My 16 inches are priced at $180; a same-day appointment is negotiated on the spot.

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Moods stylist Kelley Schedewitz describes the shiny, healthy-looking results as miraculous, but L.A. stylist Tina Cassaday, dubbed the “hair doctor,” by client Catherine Zeta-Jones, warns of the hidden costs. Since the Japanese straightening craze hit the Hollywood Hills, the trichologist has seen over a thousand post-treatment clients, some with golf-ball-sized bald patches. “After a second or third treatment,” she says, “there is no moisture left in the hair.” The bonds are blown out; hair feels “straw-like” to the touch.

The promises are bewitching, and sometimes false. But one cannot dismiss the advice of women who have learned from their indifference. “The most important thing I have to say today is, hair matters,” Senator Hillary Clinton told the Yale graduating class in 2001. “Pay attention to your hair. Because everyone else will.” She was only half kidding.

Design for others: beautiful and low-tech solutions for daily problems

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A SMALL BUT IMPORTANT collection of ingeniously designed yet simple-to-use devices from around the globe is currently on display at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum (part of the Smithsonian Institution) in New York City, where it will be on view until Sept. 23. Organized outdoors in the lush garden behind the former town house of Andrew Carnegie, the Bill Gates of his day in terms of personal wealth, the exhibit highlights affordable, innovative products created specifically for the world’s poorest people, as well as for disaster victims and refugees.

The exhibit, titled “Design for the Other 90%,” also focuses on designers as agents of social change, who can use their skills and creativity to house, feed, educate and otherwise assist people without electricity, adequate shelter, clean water, books or even a shady public spot in which to gather with families and neighbors. Designers from many nations have been responding to widespread basic needs and, along with the manufacturers, have envisioned potential business startups and markets among the 2.8 billion people who live on less than $2 a day. This is revolutionary, since designers typically work with just 10 percent of humanity in mind–the few who buy everything.

Cynthia E. Smith, the curator, has assembled products for viewing that already work, rather than blueprints or untested notions of what might work. The only exception appears to be the $100 laptop (nominated for the 2006 People’s Design Award competition sponsored by the museum), a bright-green-and-white mini-model made of slick rubber that is still in production. Several governments stand ready to purchase the first batch of computers later this year.

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Arranged on the grass are assorted water pumps, water filters, rain catchers and water storage devices. One finds the Domed Pit Latrine Slab–a concrete disk with two footprints and an opening–part of a kit that furthers sanitation in refugee camps worldwide. One of my favorite products is the Pot-in-Pot cooler (from Nigeria), a non-mechanical refrigerator made of two clay pots with a layer of sand and water between them, which can keep produce fresh for 21 days even in arid climates. Small construction businesses in East Africa are buying an efficient steel block press that makes strong, uniform building blocks of various dimensions. Such products save time, labor and money. Others shelter, educate and promote health among whole communities.

Many of the products provide low-tech solutions to huge problems encountered daily. Think of the women in sub-Saharan Africa, who spend 15 to 30 hours each week just transporting necessities like water, firewood, crops and grain. How much better their lives would be if they could use the drip irrigation system on exhibit. It reduces water consumption while increasing crop yields. Just a bag and some plastic tubing, it needs very little water pressure to work properly. The result: more food for less work and less water. More than 600,000 systems have been sold so far. Then there is the Q-Drum, which is manufactured in South Africa. The one on display is a bright blue plastic doughnut, hollow inside, with a plastic rope attached. The newfangled water wheel transports by rolling along or by pulling as much as 75 liters of water–no lifting required. Big Boda is a load-carrying bicycle with a woven seat made to carry two passengers or oversize loads, and it is easy to manufacture locally. And what might the women do with a bamboo treadle pump on their land, so simple that a child can use it to irrigate a field?

Other equipment on view is high-tech by comparison. Imagine the excitement that would be stirred up by five motorcycles arriving in a remote Cambodian village, bringing temporary Internet access to all. Called the Motoman Network, it provides mobile Internet access points and a satellite uplink. That enables schools to send and receive e-mail and to use the Internet for a few hours or over several days of instruction. A visiting nurse can examine and digitally photograph patients, transmit the information to a hospital (the one described is in Boston) using a solar-powered computer, and physicians can respond within hours with medical opinions and treatment recommendations. All this takes a highly coordinated effort and tools (an antenna, solar panel, satellite and the motorcycles), but one team can move from village to village on a schedule.

At the exhibition one can examine each object up close. I stood inside the plywood hut built by Georgia Tech students originally for Atlanta’s homeless, and I felt the cool shade under the New Orleans 7th Ward Shade Pavilion, designed by University of Kansas School of Architecture students for a community center damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Being there helps one judge the dimensions and stability of a temporary cardboard shelter that requires no tools to assemble and can be mailed flat. And one can note how tiny are the Kinkajou microfilm projector and portable library, a solar- and battery-powered teaching tool that eliminates the need for books. With this one projector, Design that Matters, Inc., a U.S. company, has helped more than 3,000 adults in 45 rural villages in Mali learn to read.

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It is unfortunate that the exhibit is not scheduled to travel, but many small museums could mount a limited collection like this. If you cannot see the exhibit in New York, try the museum’s attractive, informative Web site, www.Cooperhewitt.org. The only thing I found missing is a list of what each item costs and who constitutes the market for it. Are the people the buyers or are nongovernmental organizations, the United Nations or governments the target? The works themselves are so humble and unassuming that one sees in many of them how beautiful and practical simplicity can be. Many of the products depend on computers and recently developed microtechnology.

Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate turned philanthropist when he retired, would have approved of this exhibition in his backyard. It meshes well with his philosophy of building wealth though thrift and hard work and of improving oneself through education. It also would have made E. F. Schumacher proud. The economist and author of Small Is Beautiful extolled appropriate technology and urged finding ways to help people to help themselves out of poverty. The movement he spawned in the 1970’s has inspired some of the designers whose work is on display here.

Not every problem made worse by poverty is intractable or unsolvable, as these socially responsible and thoughtfully designed objects so clearly demonstrate.

KAREN SUE SMITH is the editorial director of America.