Full Name
Doreen Gehry Nelson
Job Title
Founding Director of Design-Based Learning
UCLA School of Education & Information Studies–Center X
Speaker Bio
Doreen Gehry Nelson is Professor Emerita of California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, School of Education and Integrative Studies; Adjunct Professor in the Cal Poly College of Environmental Design; she was a Professor at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, from 2002 to 2019; and in 2019, was named Founding Director of Design-Based Learning by the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies–Center X for the UCLA Design-Based Learning Project.

An award-winning, 50-year veteran educator and published author in the field of education, Nelson began developing her Design-Based Learning methodology (formerly called City Building Education) in the late 1960s to ignite creativity, promote high-level transfer of learning, and foster cross-curricular critical thinking skills among K–12 students using the spatial domain. 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.

Nelson has served as lecturer, teacher, consultant, and scholar-in-residence for institutions as diverse as 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. Nelson contributed to the original Maxis SimCity simulation and wrote teacher guides for the product. From 1994 through 2004, she 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.

Nelson has taught her methodology to thousands of educators worldwide—and to architects and lawyers, researchers, computer scientists, marine biologists, medical doctors, theater artists, musicians, and dancers.

Encompassing four decades of evaluative data, Nelson’s research confirms that students experiencing her Design-Based Learning methodology 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 these classrooms graduate and enter college in significant numbers.

Nelson established a two-year master’s degree program for K–12 teachers in 1995, with an emphasis in Design-Based Learning; and a one-year Certificate program in 2010. Three graduates of the MA program received a Doreen Gehry Nelson Design-Based Learning Scholarship in Cal Poly’s doctorate program in Educational Leadership.

ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, California, hosted the annual, five-day Design-Based Learning Summer Institute for K–-12 Teachers from 2001 through 2019, providing scholarships for participants, many of whom went into the MA program at Cal Poly.

In Southern California, Nelson’s Design-Based Learning methodology is practiced in individual public and private schools; it has been introduced at the UCLA Lab School and is featured in the San Gabriel Unified School District as part of its mission. The Walnut Valley Unified School District constructed a building dedicated solely to the Nelson’s Design-Based Learning program at Chaparral Middle School, and established an Academic Design Program for 10th–12th graders at Walnut High School, applying the methodology to an integrated Math, U.S. History, World History, and Language Arts curriculum.

The UCLA Library Special Collections houses Nelson’s archive with an oral history, and featured her life and work in an exhibition in 2017, the first time an educator has been so honored.

In 2019, Center X at the UCLA School of Education & Information Studies established the UCLA Design-Based Learning Project, led by a full-time director holding a master’s degree in Nelson’s methodology. In 2020, a gift of $2 million was given by the Frank O. Gehry Foundation to endow the Doreen Gehry Nelson Director of Design-Based Learning position for UCLA Center X, now the permanent home of the Design-Based Learning Project.
Doreen Gehry Nelson