Students solve real-world problems at 48-hour Maker Fest

Students use design thinking principles to create real-world products in a two-day maker event.

Nicole Pellaton
April 10, 2017
Play VideoMaker Fest at Phillips Exeter Academy

Learning to make, to experiment hands-on, to fail and recover — it’s all part of the growing maker culture at Exeter that is expanding the traditional Harkness classroom model of collaborative learning to new venues and rewards.

“Kids want to have tactile experiences,” says History Instructor Meg Foley who is co-teaching a new course called Design Thinking, along with Science Instructor David Gulick. In connection with the launch of that course, Exeter hosted its first Maker Fest — open to all students, and required for the students enrolled in Design Thinking.

Working with Rajesh Nair, MIT researcher and founder of ENCube Labs, which trains innovation skills through real-world problem solving, the PEA faculty welcomed 40 Exonians, from preps to seniors, to Phelps Science Center for a weekend of innovation and invention.

Learning how to build

Maker Fest started Friday night with an intensive training session where students created small projects using 3-D printers, Arduino boards (for quickly creating circuitry), a laser cutter and other essential tools.

Early Saturday afternoon, the students came back together and arranged themselves into teams of four and five for an exercise in ideating (an updated form of brainstorming that involves both sides of the brain and is conducive to bigger, better idea generation).

Nair asked the groups: “How would you keep homeless kids in school?” After the first round of responses, which resulted in what Foley calls “very similar and reasonable sounding things,” Nair challenged students to think outside of their own experience and come up with three new solutions: one that would cost more than $1 million, one that would “get you into trouble” and a third that incorporates magic or fantasy.

Though brief, this ideation exercise showed students how to “think bigger than the immediate possibilities,” says Foley. “They learned to redefine the problem.”

The Focus Friend team works on a prototype.

The challenge: develop a real-world product

Armed with fabrication skills and ideation experience, the students turned their focus to the weekend’s challenge: to develop a working prototype for a product that solves a problem for students at Exeter.

Spread out across classrooms in the Physics wing, with one lab serving as dedicated maker space, the groups discussed problems they face, including cell phones and the distractions they cause, organizing materials, waking up in the morning and locking belongings securely (even in a shared dorm fridge).

For the rest of the weekend (the students had about 14 hours before product presentation time at 2 p.m. on Sunday), the groups worked independently, finding their own rhythms. “The maker space was bustling,” says Foley. “Sometimes there’d be all kinds of hubbub and a lot of motion, and other times — when they ran into a problem or there was a bottleneck — they’d slow down. They had to overcome that frustration. They came up for air only when they hit a roadblock — like when they needed help with the 3-D printer or laser cutter. They were incredibly self-directed.”

Trying, failing, trying again ... and making it

“Our team worked very effectively together,” says Kylah Williams, a senior on the Waker Upper team which was developing an alarm clock that no one – even Exeter uppers – could sleep through. “During ideation, we all threw out ideas and all of them were considered before we came to our final idea. During prototyping, we all took on different tasks while working on our project, and frequently checked in with each other.”

Members of the Waker Upper team during the ideation phase.

Like many great ideas, the Waker Upper hit some snags. “We had a period during the second day when we lost hope,” says Williams. The team had planned to use a trigger to shoot water at the sleeper, but it presented too much resistance for the available electronics. “We felt like we were wasting time and we would never come up with something. Eventually, we did find an idea and were able to move forward.”

Maker Fest ended with all nine teams presenting a working prototype, PowerPoint presentation and short video. Projects included: The Annotation Station (portable container for school supplies that props books at an adjustable angle for easy reading), Focus Friend (lamp that will not light until you place your cell phone on the base as a counterweight, to reduce distractions during study hours), Clip (flexible lock for keeping belongings safe) and iStatus (digital dorm door sign that tells friends to Come In! or Stay Out!).

The Hydrodesk team shows off its prototype.

“The students learned that a diverse group with the time, energy and resources can really produce something that no one of them on their own would have thought of producing,” says Foley, who sees the tangible nature of product-making as a way to broaden what is implicit in every Harkness conversation. “They learned that time is an essential part of the process. Rather than hopping to the manufacturing right away – as impatient as they were to start making – they needed to think and talk and share ideas and try to figure out the problem they were trying to solve.”