Frank O. Gehry Foundation Gift to UCLA Will Advance Design-Based Learning

Gift in honor of Doreen Gehry Nelson Supports the Design-Based Learning Project at UCLA Center X.

UCLA has announced a gift of $2 million from the Frank O. Gehry Foundation to the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies. This gift was made by Frank and Berta Gehry to honor Frank’s sister, Doreen Gehry Nelson, a 1959 alumna of UCLA who has devoted her professional life to improving K-12 education outcomes. The gift establishes an endowed Doreen Gehry Nelson Director of Design-Based Learning position for UCLA Center X, which houses the Design-Based Learning Project.  

“We are honored to receive this extraordinary gift from Frank and Berta Gehry and that they have chosen to invest in UCLA’s ongoing commitment to K-12 educational excellence and innovation,” said Tina Christie, UCLA’s Wasserman Dean. “This gift honors the work of Frank’s sister, Doreen Gehry Nelson, and her remarkable vision and persistent pursuit of the use of design and creativity as a pedagogy for engaging young people as active and socially responsible learners.”  

“Teaching is a profoundly creative endeavor, but very few people recognize this,” said Frank Gehry. “Very few people have given teachers the forum and the tools by which they can develop their art. My sister, having been inspired by John Dewey early in her own life as a teacher, understood this and through her methodology, she has helped teachers ignite their own imagination, develop their own intuition, and harness their own humanity in order that they can cultivate the same in their students.  The power to imagine is the path to a better and richer and more equitable society for all.  This is the power of the Doreen Gehry Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning, which is so critically important.” 

“I am grateful that my brother and sister-in-law made this gift to UCLA in my honor,” said Doreen Gehry Nelson, “and I am deeply touched that they are ensuring that my method of Design-Based Learning continues to be an enduring part of UCLA’s K-12 education programs. As an artist, Frank recognizes that my methodology promotes creative and high level thinking and fosters civic literacy, global awareness, and active citizenship.  He knows students truly learn what it means to think about their future and become active members of their communities.”  

For more than 40 years, K-12 classroom teachers around the world have used Professor Doreen Gehry Nelson’s Method of Design-Based Learning™ to teach students critical thinking through hands-on experiences that provide a context for them to explore challenges and multiple solutions.  

A classroom at Nogales High School Rowland Unified School District, employing the Doreen Gehry Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning in 2003. Courtesy of Doreen Gehry Nelson

Design-Based Learning is an interdisciplinary methodology that ignites creativity and motivates civic engagement to teach critical thinking and problem solving. While in traditional education learning is often void of context, Design-Based Leaning is based on generating a comprehensive sequence of connected curriculum-related Design Challenges. Teachers use district pacing guides and content specific standards to develop an engaging, integrated curriculum. 

The gift will fund a full-time director at Center X who has expertise in Design-Based Learning. Established in 2019, with Jessica Heim as the Director, the Design-Based Learning Project at UCLA Center X applies and builds upon the Doreen Nelson Method of Design-Based Learning™. This student-centered teaching methodology engages students in seeking and solving curriculum-based problems as they build a city, colony, civilization, or other small, contextual model in the classroom.

The process of building a small city functions as a vehicle for students to connect concrete ideas to abstract academic concepts. Students imagine creative solutions to challenges that arise in building and running the City. The City lends itself to the discussion of numerous academic subjects such as characters and plot, government systems, and biological functions. Students learn to revise their solutions after discussion, textbook study, and research. Building a community, an ancient civilization, a biome, a biosphere, a business, etc., based on required curriculum targets higher level thinking and promotes shared problem solving. The interdependence of the parts of the City is a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all subject matter.  While traditional education is teacher-centered, Design-Based Learning is student-centered. Students learn to communicate by role-playing the jobs of city life. They become both self-directed and interdependent as they discuss, describe, explain, and justify their solutions to design challenges.

“Traditional education is about teaching small topics, while Design-Based Learning stimulates students to explore powerful topics including universal concepts, principles, values and morals,” Gehry Nelson said.  

Encompassing four decades of evaluative data, Nelson’s research confirms that students in Design-Based Learning classrooms develop creative and critical thinking skills and score higher than average on standardized tests in language, reading, math, and other subjects. English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities, too, show measurable improvement. Students in the program graduate and enter college in significant numbers.

Frank Gehry and his sister, Doreen Gehry Nelson.
Frank Gehry’s drinks a toast at his 90th Birthday Party at The Getty Center on March 18, 2019, with his sister Doreen Gehry Nelson, UCLA alumna and renowned teacher educator. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging

“The Design-Based Learning Project at UCLA Center X provides a framework for successful engagement of 21st Century young people as we prepare them to be young citizens and leaders for tomorrow,” said Wasserman Dean Christie. “We thank Mr. Gehry for his investment in this important work and extend our warmest thanks and congratulations to Doreen Gehry Nelson for her vision in creating this innovative model of engaging young people.”

Over the last 50 years, Frank and Berta Gehry, who live in Los Angeles, have grown Gehry Partners into one of the leading architecture firms in the world – she, leading the finance and operations side and he, leading the design side.  His works are cited as being among the most important works of contemporary architecture in the World Architecture Survey, which led Vanity Fair to label him as “the most important architect of our age.” His buildings, including the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles, the Dancing House in Prague, and the Guggenheim Museum building in Bilbao, Spain, and the Foundation Louis Vuitton Museum in Paris have helped transform institutions and economies, while smaller works such as the Boulez Saal in Berlin and YOLA Inglewood have helped nurture and enable artistic communities. 

UCLA Center X is a community of educators within the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies working to transform public schooling to create a more just, equitable, and humane society. UCLA’s School of Education & Information Studies is consistently ranked as one of the top education programs in the nation. UCLA’s Education and Information Studies faculty are reframing national and global conversations on education and information studies from theory to practice. Together, our world-class departments, research centers and demonstration schools make up an institution known for its extraordinary diversity, collaborative spirit, and dedication to solving the most pressing issues in education and information studies.

Click here to learn more about Doreen Gehry Nelson and her Design-Based Learning Method.

Above: World-renowned architect Frank Gehry celebrated his 90th birthday in 2020 with his wife Berta Gehry (at center) and his sister Doreen Gehry Nelson, at a concert in his honor in the Pierre Boulez Saal, a venue that he designed, at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin.

The Frank O. Gehry Foundation has given UCLA’s School of Education and Information Studies a $2 million gift to endow a Doreen Gehry Nelson Director of Design-Based Learning, in honor of Nelson, a UCLA alumna and lifelong educator.

Photo by Peter Adamik