Brown bag design challenge

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Last week’s class gave me a lot of food for thought. I spent quite some time after, mulling over how the session went, how I would have liked it to go, and why it probably didn’t go the way I had expected. When we decided to jump in on the “makerspace” bandwagon, we had some clear goals in mind and decided to do what any best international schools in India or for that matter the world would do.

By way of the “making” that happens within this space, we wanted to inculcate in our students certain skills, certain attitudes, and definitely a certain mindset. Understandably therefore, the hope is that every activity and every challenge that our students engage in, in this space, will take us all a little closer to these goals. To that effect, I want every “maker” session to be a learning experience not just for my students, but for me as well.

For this week, I had a slightly clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my students, and a much clearer idea of what I did not want to do with them. I did not want a challenge that focused on just one outcome, like the catapult activity. Instead, I wanted one that would be open to varying interpretations, one that would speak to each student and tap into his or her creativity differently. I wanted a grouping strategy that would foster constructive group dynamics, and I wanted to introduce more structure into the “making” process, so that the students were flowing through the various stages of the engineering design cycle, without even realising it!

So I zeroed in on “READY, SET, DESIGN”, a great group challenge that I found on the Smithsonian Design Museum’s website . This activity trains participants to problem-solve openly, to see and draw connections, to build on the ideas of others, to cooperate within a group, and to develop an inclination towards action, by creating simple prototypes.

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This time, I let my students pick their own group-mates, I just specified the group size. I handed each group a bag, with an assortment of everyday supplies. The items in the bag were of three kinds :

  • Fastener items (pipe cleaners, rubber bands, paper clips, string, binder clips)
  • Surface items (card paper, aluminium foil, packing foam)
  • Structure items (straws, icecream sticks , tooth picks)

In addition to the supplies, each bag had a challenge card tacked on to it. The team’s job for the day was to come up with a solution to this challenge, which it would prototype using the materials provided in the bag. While the construction items were identical in all bags, I made the challenges different, just so that the groups would be exposed to questions and ideas that they were not directly engaged with. The challenge statements were made very open-ended, thus allowing for students’ own creative interpretations. Too specific a problem, would have ended up restricting their imagination.

Once the students settled down with their bags, I gave them 5 minutes to discuss within their groups about what the challenge meant to them. Following a consensus on the design problem, we talked about what a prototype meant. Then we moved on to the ideation phase, where initially I wanted the students to work individually, and pick their own brains. I encouraged them to think outside the box, and to stay away from the “safe” options. Each student got 10 minutes, and a sheet of paper to draw out his or her idea.

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Then the groups got another 15 minutes to pool in their thoughts, and share their ideas. I stressed repeatedly on how important it is, to really give ears to every single idea, to constructively discuss and collate ideas, and to mutually decide on the one final idea that the group would go on to build.

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Once the groups had zeroed in on their final design, it was time for them to get “making“. I chose not to constrain the materials too much. So the bags actually had quite a large variety of items for the students to work with. This way, they could incorporate more into their design, and afford to make mistakes. I gave the students 20 minutes to build their designs.

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This time the groups were cohesive, with almost all heads and hands busy at work, and intense focus printed on everybody’s faces. It was interesting to see how students worked the different materials to get their structures and joints in place. Some designs were fun, some were imaginative, yet others were complex with a lot of impressive details. From a tooth cleaner that doubled up as a flosser, to a maglev based vehicle for children to move around, to a robotic trash picker, to a pet protector idea derived from a rodent trap, to a solar powered canopy, we got to see some really cool ideas!

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But what’s an idea unless it is shared? That’s what we did next. Each group shared their challenge, and explained how their prototype would act as a solution. Effective presentation of an idea is an essential skill, equally important, is the ability to pay attention to another’s idea, grasp it, and ask meaningful questions. The students evaluated their peer groups on how well they understood their challenge and the solution, how interesting they found the design, and the overall effectiveness of the solution. Here are a few snippets.

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