Interview: Michael Cook on Atomic in the classroom

Michael Cook is a teacher, illustrator and designer (among others things!) based in Iowa.

In late 2015 –already a long-time Atomic user– Michael reached out about the potential to use Atomic in the classroom. We caught up with Michael to learn more about his school, his students and the role of design in his teaching.

It’s fair to say Maharishi School in Iowa is remarkable. Its progressive approach to holistic education, known as Consciousness-Based Education, involves meditation and a strong focus on sustainability.

Here’s what Michael had to say about how he’s incorporating design into his teaching.

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What are your thoughts on the importance of introducing kids to design and prototyping?

Design thinking and the mindset of prototyping are things that these kids will be able to apply in some way to almost any challenging situation they encounter later in life. I think education is going to need to place more emphasis on open-ended learning, collaboration, and cultivating healthy mindsets to both cope with and take advantage of the saturation of personal technology and computing power. Basically, restructure the system so that kids can’t rely on phones to just spout out answers.

Tell us a bit about the students you teach. How big is the class? What age are the students?

For schools in general, it was a pretty small class, about 12 students. But the whole school is pretty small. The class was available to the whole high school so the ages were 14-18. I also had students from China, Dubai, and Kenya. The Chinese students bring with them very different experiences with apps and app design.


Tell us about the recent project you ran with your class. How did it come about? What was the idea? How did you brief it and what were you expecting?

Teaching a class on app prototyping is part of a general push that I’ve been involved with to integrate design thinking and project based learning at the school. Part of the importance of these activities is that we have relatively little idea of what is going to be important exactly in these kid’s futures. App design was the context that I was presenting design thinking and project based learning in. Other teachers taught them through things like rocketry, entrepreneurship, dance, and cooking.

Teaching is a hobby for me and, in a way, is my own continued education. I’ve been using teaching to explore areas of knowledge that I’ve been interested in or wanted to strengthen that overlap with needs at the school.

2015 felt like the year of the rise of prototyping in the digital design world and Atomic had been my gateway to it. 2015 also happened to be the year that the school implemented a “1 to 1” system where all students would have a laptop. This meant I could teach a class that relied on computers and I could use Atomic because it would run on all of them.


What are some of the challenges you and your students faced during the project? How did you tackle them?

Atomic handled the technical challenges of collaboration and that allowed us to go deep into the interpersonal challenges of collaboration. This was easily the most difficult part and in a way the main reason why I thought this class would be worthwhile for the students.

I think that many of my students, to some degree, thought apps were much simpler than they realized. I was happy that they got to confront this misconception.

Beyond that, the difficulty was mostly cramming in a crash course on interface design while leaving enough time to play, explore, and make improvements with our prototypes. Only two students had any design experience so I had to bring them up to speed very quickly. To do this I adapted Don Normans Udacity: Intro to the Design of Everyday Things. It does an exceptional job of introducing foundational concepts of design and prototyping as well. If I had more time in the class I would have run my students through the full curriculum.


What role did tools like Atomic play in your project and how were they helpful?

Atomic was the core tool for the class. I threw them into it on day one. I really admire how reserved the design of Atomic is. It made it possible for me to oriente my students and get them up and running very quickly. I was able to walk them through a super simple design and have them run it on their phones in their first session.

They spent time exploring individually first and then were able to seamlessly transition to team-based work later in the course. During the community showcase at the end of the course they presented their prototypes on a large screen using Atomic’s preview mode.

Students were working on all sorts of laptops from $100 Chromebooks to Macbook Pros to hefty gaming PC’s and using a wide range of phones. I never had to worry about any of that. We just focused on learning design and prototyping.

Besides Atomic, the curriculum and course material was all housed in Google Drive where all presentations, rubrics, and class resources were accessible. I used Google Classroom to manage assignments and to let the students quickly build responsive promotional sites for their final protoypes.


We have teachers from all over the World using Atomic to teach, do you have any advice for them about preparing or running projects that involve design?

Just because students these days are inundated by technology doesn’t mean that we can make assumptions about technical competency. I back-tracked most on teaching system level operations like keyboard shortcuts and importing/exporting image files or icons.


Outside the classroom you’re also heavily involved in other creative endeavours, like Cookicons. Tell us more about those.

What’s that old saying? Give a man a job and he’ll be busy from 9-5, give a man some side projects and he’ll be busy for the rest of his life.

My main work has been as an interface designer. But I maintain a consuming portfolio of additional side projects. With Cookicons, I’ve cultivated an expertise in premium Material Design app icons. Playsprout Industries is a collaboration with aspiring developers to built sensible Android apps for young kids. Mr.Cook is my teacher persona, as we’ve been learning about. And most recently, I’ve been working to assemble a Material Design consulting collective under the name Papermill Collective.

If you have one piece of advice for students learning to design, what would it be?

Don’t take advice from strangers. They’ll just tell you what worked for them. Take advice from people who know you or your situation well.

A huge thanks to Michael from the team at Atomic. We’re excited to see Atomic being used by students and teachers around the World - if you are a student, drop us a line on to to find out whether you’re eligible for our one-year-free education license!

Posted 2 June 2016

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