Design Thinking, Building and Creating Through Innovative ASH Works

From idea to completion, design thinking leads learning for students at Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Eric Swanson surveys his classroom at Academy of the Sacred Heart (ASH) in Bloomfield Hills and counts 36 skateboards in various stages of completion. Recently, this space was filled with miniature dragsters, designed and built by students in the Lower School. Here, in an area dedicated to creativity, is the heart of ASH Works, an innovative class and makerspace for design thinking, building and project-based learning for ASH students in grades two through 12.

“ASH Works is broad,” explains Swanson, ASH Works creator, science educator and former school counselor with a background in woodworking and construction. “It’s not just woodwork, but a lot of things. It’s a place where students can come in and not have hard rules. Where they are limited only by their own passion, desire and persistence.”

As an independent Catholic, college-preparatory school for girls (infant-grade 12) and boys (infant-grade 8) of all faiths, ASH provides a rigorous curriculum — and ASH Works is an opportunity for students to bring all their skills and creativity together.

“At a young age, kids are curious. Our students know that math and reading and writing are important but they also want to make things, and this is a whole-child approach. It’s a creative outlet,” Swanson says.

Begins with an idea

Recently, students in grades two through four designed and built custom dragsters. “Students started by drawing pictures and then learned how to safely saw and drill and sand their cars. Some had racing stripes and letters,” Swanson says. With a tournament as a goal, students learned process, patience, persistence and perseverance. “There was effort and frustration, and in the end they enjoyed the process and were proud of their work.”

When Middle School students approached Swanson with a plan to make skateboards, they researched, designed and developed 3D blueprints for their custom boards. “Now it’s a rite of passage for fifth- and sixth-graders. They dream and decorate and paint, and in the spring we skate. They use what they have created and they love it,” Swanson says.

Photo credit: Academy of the Sacred Heart

Another project for Middle School students is to design, brand and build a product. “It’s really fun and pulls together skills in math, science, testing, modification, finance — sometimes they don’t realize they are learning,” he says. Products have included charcuterie boards, tools and tool boxes, home décor, serving spoons and bird feeders.

So many lessons

Two years in, ASH Works is an elective built into each student’s weekly schedule, and it’s a class where students can dream, design — even fail. “Most kids today don’t grow up learning hands-on skills. It’s just the reality of where we are. But when they start sawing, painting, drilling or making 3D drawings on the computer, they recognize that everyone is new at this,” Swanson says, adding that he encourages students to learn from their mistakes. “Learn what you did wrong and try again. Sometimes in math or history or science, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to do it right, but here, failure is OK.”

Parent volunteers bring valuable lessons. “We have graphic designers, even a dad who is a dentist shared how to pay attention to fine detail. Parents are eager to be invited in, which makes the program even more successful,” he says.

Next up for ASH Works is an outdoor classroom with benches, picnic tables and planters. “We have some moms who are master gardeners and our hope is to add a greenhouse where students can grow vegetables,” Swanson says. “Imagine if we could have a farm-to-table program here. That would be wonderful.”

Learn more about Academy of the Sacred Heart at


Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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