More than a museum

Exploring design thinking and collaboration in Knowledge Integration

Can a shift in perspective alter, or even improve, your mental health?

It’s a question Victoria and four classmates studied for eight months —across two continents, no less — as part of The Museum Course, a third-year course offered to students enrolled in Waterloo’s Bachelor of Knowledge Integration in the Faculty of Environment.

But grappling with the problems of cognitive psychology was only the beginning. Through self-directed learning and cross-disciplinary collaboration, the students had to design and build a way to convey their learnings in a public setting by transforming it into a museum exhibit, the final project in the three-part course.

Victoria uses a bandsaw in the Environment Workshop. Here, students learn how to safely use powertools to build their museum exhibits

“It’s about taking knowledge that seems esoteric or technical, distilling it down to the main points, and then sharing it in a way people can understand. It’s solving real-world problems through collaboration and understanding how different disciplines can work together.”

Their efforts culminated in “Points of You: Reframing Perceptions,” one of five museum exhibits on display at Waterloo’s Knowledge Integration Exhibition, KIX 2019. Held in Siegfried Hall at St. Jerome’s University College, this year’s exhibition asked students to address one of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals as a theme for their project.

Victoria’s group chose mental health and wellbeing, number three on the UN list of 17 goals for a sustainable society, as their starting point. “I’ve always been interested in mental health, and how maintaining wellbeing can be an act of self-agency,” she says.

Victoria and a teammate hang part of an installation in their museum exhibit.

The “Points of You” exhibit asks visitors to consider how an event, such as failing a test, is processed. This mindset, says Victoria, is malleable, and can change depending on perception. “By shifting perception, you can alter behaviour, and, potentially, better cope with negative thoughts.

While a physical exhibit is the students’ end product in The Museum Course, the courses are designed to teach transferable skills that are relevant to future graduate degrees, workplaces, and the students’ everyday lives.  Students develop skills ranging from research and design thinking, to communication, project management, team work, and how to adjust scope in the face of unexpected constraints. Add in the research, construction and public-space considerations involved in creating “Points of You,” and the sheer scope of learning in The Museum Course becomes clear.

Victoria discusses her team's exhibit with a group of visitors

To create the exhibit, Victoria drew from her studies in biology and fine arts, using her lab-work experience to help figure out crowd flow in museum settings, and her design, paint and colour theory know-how in the creation of the exhibit itself. Among the five students in her group, other areas of interest included math, computer science, economics and biology.

Besides the exhibition itself, Victoria says her fondest memory of The Museum Course was travelling to Amsterdam for ten days, where she and her cohorts “visited as many museums as we could,” she says.

“A museum is more than a bunch of items on display. It involves a broad range of ideas, from design and theory, to art and science, to project management,” says Victoria, who hopes to continue her dive into health after graduation, by applying to medical school.

“What’s the best way to transfer information? Empathy is a big part of the design process and knowledge sharing in general. At its core, this is Knowledge Integration.”