Tinker time

Design thinking class places experimentation and empathy at the fore. 

Adam Loyd
July 26, 2021
Students build toy prototypes in the Design Lab

In INT554 Design Thinking: Creative Workshop, weeks of brainstorming, planning, false starts, resets, feedback and perseverance culminate in one final work period. The mood in the Design Lab is unmistakable: It’s crunch time. 

Students hover over high tables, collaborating like a team of surgeons, a quick trim of a jagged edge here, two, make it three, more dabs of glue there. The operation? Building toys for grade-schoolers. 

In their second of three projects for spring term, 11 students working in three groups are developing concepts for a candy dispenser, a pinball machine and two small-object launchers — all inspired by Tinker Crates, a subscription service that provides young people interested in STEM with interactive projects that are as fun and rewarding to build as they are to play with. 

“A lot of what students are doing when they’re designing is trying to choose among a variety of different ideas that are possible,” Instructor in Science David Gulick says. “It’s not necessarily that one’s right or wrong, but they’re trying to find their way through a variety of potential paths.”

The brainchild of Gulick and Instructor in History Meg Foley, the course traces its roots to the modern hub of innovation: Silicon Valley, California. In 2015, Trustee Jennifer Holleran ’86; P’11, who at the time was working for Mark Zuckerberg ’02 and his wife Priscilla Chan’s nonprofit Startup:Education, invited Exeter faculty including Gulick and Foley to tour a handful of Bay Area schools with curriculums based on the design thinking method. Key components of the problem-solving process include creating prototypes to be tested by a desired demographic and making refinements based on feedback. 

Holleran is delighted to learn that the course, now in its fifth year, is flourishing as a space where students have the opportunity to add new ways of thinking to the Academy’s traditional pedagogy. “To teach the students to think about others and to listen in that way is very consistent with Harkness and comes through in design thinking, too,” Holleran says. “Harkness is so powerful, and we should never lose touch with that, but I think there’s an extension for the modern era that we’re in, which is, how do you actually then put things into action in the world?”

The wind up ...

Inside the Design Lab, James Manderlink ’21 tinkers with the tension on the arm of a table-top trebuchet. Spokesperson Nick Wang ’21 says the working title of their creation is “Build and Yeet.” “Yeet,” he explains, is “a fun way to say ‘huck.’” 

The group is creating with fifth graders in mind and has already received feedback from their demographic. Teams sent early prototypes to children within the Exeter community along with videos outlining the steps for assembly. The kids replied with videos of their own, detailing their experience building and playing with the toys. If not for the pandemic, students would spend time with the children as they built and played with prototypes, taking notes on pain points and what looks promising. 

The grade in this class is not about the final product. We’re telling the students, ‘Hey, get out there and try it.‘”
Instructor David Gulick

Across the room, Varun Oberai ’21, Zofia Kierner ’21 and Haruka Masamura ’21 work on graphic decals for their desktop candy dispenser. Like their projectile-launching peers, this group has learned firsthand about the importance of market research and feedback from their target audience. Their original concept, a bedside clock that, when the alarm was activated, would leap off the night-stand, making it impossible for its groggy owner to hit “snooze,” was met with less than rave reviews, but not for the reason one might imagine. “The alarm clock was too difficult because of the way kids had to build it,” Kierner says. “We heard back that we made the kid cry because of the frustration of the project, so we had to switch it up.” 

It’s moments like these that reaffirm Gulick and Foley’s belief that courses like this belong at Exeter. “The process is designed to accommodate times when we fail, and then still move forward,” Foley says. “And if we could put that within our course structure, it would be a way that students could come upon this opportunity, in a structured way.”

“The grade in this class is not about the final product. We’re telling the students, ‘Hey, get out there and try it.’ That’s what this class is about,” says Gulick.

... and the pitch

Standing before their classmates and instructors, “Team Pinball” formally present their findings as the final step in the weekslong assignment.

“One reason we chose to build a pinball machine was that it was a game that was part of all of our childhoods, so there’s a bit of a nostalgia aspect for us,” Daniel Addonizio ’21 says. “We thought it’d be really cool to bring that back for the kids nowadays.” 

The group described how they wanted to provide their users with an element that would give them the option to customize their gameplay and make the board their own. For that, the team turned to another favorite toy of their target demographic. “We glued Legos on the board so that there’s a base that [our testers] could build off if they want,” Richard Davis ’21 explains to the class. “Also, the bars are made out of quarter-inch plywood, so that you can paint them, draw on them and customize them however you want.” 

Design thinking students present their final projects.

Throughout the process, students were encouraged to frame their ideating and creating around “how might we” statements. The mental exercise encourages teams to think about their test subjects on a personal level. “It’s a motivating design statement,” Gulick says. “Where they may have started off at the very beginning with this design statement that said our challenge is to create a Tinker Crate for fifth-grade students, this takes that and makes it more specific in light of who their user is.”

Through that line of thinking, students tap into empathy, a not-so-accidental byproduct of the design thinking process. “One student talked eloquently about how important empathy is and how motivating it was for him to work on something for other people and try to get it right,” Foley says. “To hear him say how important it was to engage with the people he was designing for and understand them and care for them, it was very moving, really.”

As they begin to pack up their stuff, Gulick makes his own request for feedback: “So are you all ready to go about trying again on Tuesday?” 

He’s met with a head nods and a confident chorus of, “We are!” 

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.

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