Doreen Gehry Nelson: Design-Based Learning Brings Innovation to Teaching Critical Thinking Skills

UCLA alumna and teacher educator created and trademarked her method of Design-Based Learning, used worldwide in K-12 classrooms.

Doreen Gehry Nelson earned her Bachelor of Arts and Elementary Teaching Credential in 1959 at UCLA. She studied to be a teacher under the legendary Corinne Seeds, then the principal at University Elementary School, which is today called the UCLA Lab School Corinne A. Seeds Campus. After graduating, Gehry Nelson was hired as a teacher at the University Elementary School, an experience that profoundly influenced her career. Gehry Nelson went on to became a public school teacher in Los Angeles and found herself searching for better ways to teach her students so they would readily retain and reuse information and engage in creative and higher-level critical thinking. She began researching long-term retention and transfer of learning. She soon pioneered what is today an entire field of study called Design-Based Learning, eventually trademarked as the Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning ™.

For more than 40 years, K-12 classroom teachers around the world have used Professor Doreen Gehry Nelson’s method of Method of Design-Based Learning ™ to engage students’ creative and critical thinking through hands-on experiences that propel them to problem seek and problem solve.  

Doreen Gehry Nelson serves as Professor Emerita at Cal Poly Pomona’s School of Education and Integrative Studies, an adjunct professor in the Cal Poly College of Environmental Design, and serves as a professor at Art Center College of Design. She has served as a lecturer, teacher, consultant, and scholar-in-residence for a diverse set of institutions including, MIT, Harvard, Apple Computer, 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. Gehry Nelson contributed to the original Maxis SimCity simulation and wrote several teacher guides for the product. 

At Cal Poly, Pomona, Gehry Nelson established a two-year Design-Based Learning Master’s Degree program for K-12 teachers in 1995 and a one-year Certificate program in 2010. Graduates of the MA program are eligible for a Doreen Gehry Nelson Design-Based Learning Scholarship in Cal Poly’s doctorate program in Educational Leadership. The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in partnership with Cal Poly has hosted the annual, five-day Design-Based Learning Summer Institute for K-12 Teachers since 2001, providing scholarships for participants. 

From 1994 through 2004, Gehry Nelson led a Japan-USA Cultural and Educational Exchange program to develop Design-Based Learning as part of the Japanese national curriculum. The program included international video conferences and a satellite school in Finland. 

She was named one of 30 top American innovators in education by the New York Times in 1991 and is the recipient of both the American Institute of Architecture’s prestigious Lifetime Honorary Membership (the highest honor for a non-architect) and the California State University’s statewide, 2006 Wang Award for Excellence in Education.  In Southern California, Nelson’s Design-Based Learning methodology is featured in K-12 classrooms in individual schools and throughout the San Gabriel Unified School District. Walnut Valley Unified School District constructed a building dedicated solely Design-Based Learning at Chaparral Middle School, and established an Academic Design Program using Nelson’s methodology for 10th through 12th graders at Walnut High School.

A milestone achievement for Doreen Gehry Nelson and Design-Based Learning occurred in March 2014 when the UCLA Library Special Collections acquired her archival materials representing the entire history of Design-Based Learning. The UCLA Library houses this archive next to the papers of her mentor, Corrine Seeds. The historical materials include an active website, 6,000 slides of K-12 classrooms taken by the Office of Ray and Charles Eames, films and books published by and about Nelson’s work in Design-Based Learning, assessment results, past projects, lesson plans, sample student work, and a chronology of the historic development of the Design-Based Learning field. Nelson was honored to have this archival collection to go to UCLA because that is where the ideas behind Design-Based Learning were born. She wants her archival materials to provide a resource for future teachers so they can develop their own programs using the Design-Based Learning methodology. UCLA exhibited selected works from Nelson’s archives in a 2017 exhibition.

Click here to learn about a gift from Frank and Berta Gehry to endow the Doreen Gehry Nelson Director of Design-Based Learning at UCLA Center X, which houses the Design-Based Learning Project.  

Above: Doreen Gehry Nelson, UCLA alumna and teacher educator, created the Design-Based Learning Method, archived in UCLA Library Special Collections alongside the papers of Corrine A. Seeds, an early principal of University Elementary School, now UCLA Lab School.

Courtesy of Doreen Gehry Nelson