What gift do you get for your favorite team that just moved into the coolest teaching space on campus?
The Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the office I taught design thinking courses for during my time at University of Maryland, moved into the recently constructed Edward St. John Teaching and Learning Center. This space is one of the coolest on campus — exposed beams, brainstorming rooms, a faux garage door, movable furniture, tons of prototyping supplies (If you’re a fellow Alumnus please check it on your next campus visit). Naturally I wanted to get the team a ‘house’ warming gift so I built an internet connected tool that blows bubbles when one of their courses is kicking off across campus🎉. Although this may sound trivial I had a method to this gifting madness.
Gift giving is a great exercise in empathy and I started by thinking about stories that make The Academy team unique:
- Celebration! The team celebrates wins and failures of all sizes. At the end of a year the leader of the team gave everyone Hoberman Spheres as a symbol of the teams exponential expansion across campus.
- Whimsical! The team adds a dabble of fun to all projects. We created a fortune teller experience that helped students predict the course of their future. We did this to drive enrollment in innovation courses.
- Build it! Academia often gets entrenched in planning and proposing. The Academy encourages a bias to building. The new space even has a low resolution prototyping area to encourage students and faculty to bring their ideas to life.
- Culture! Offices tend to be serious and orderly. The Academy built a culture of joy and silliness, thoughtfulness and compassion, and making other people successful.
My intention was to celebrate a course starting, that involved whimsical bubbles, while showing it was built with resources everyone has, and guide visitors to acknowledge this space has a different culture than the rest of campus. Furthermore, the Academy’s work is spread out across campus in many classrooms and departments, I hoped that the Bubbler serve as a quasi-homing beacon that would connect Academy instructions far and wide back to the new space. Lastly, the bubbling calendar ties directly to one of the courses the team teaches. The course I am referring to is an intro to design thinking session where students are asked to redesign the Mondays. After the challenge we like to show a Monday redesign by IDEO called Pop-up Notify which is very similar to the Bubbler.
How to build it
Below are the steps I took to bring this idea to life. Don’t hesitate to reach out for guidance if you are building your own.
I designed the case large enough to house a fan and the bubble mechanism at the top. The bottom of the case included vents to allow a draft for the fan. I used the Maryland Terrapin Shell logo to create the vents in the front to tie in a Maryland theme and added engravings to make it personal. I laser cut the design out of 2, 12" x 24", 1/8" plywood boards. You can pick up the files here and are free to customize them as you would like.
I have always admired how magnets offer a clean and simple solution (like plugging in charging cables). I used 16 magnets to allow the back two panels to easily be removed and replaced — a slight tug and the panel pops off and bring it close enough and it pops back into place. The top panel provides access to the electronics while the bottom panel provides access to a removable tray that collects extra bubble detergent. Don’t forget to add the power cord for the microprocessor as you assemble the box.
The brain is a Particle Photon which is connected to a gmail calendar and a IFTTT button through a few lines of code. The code interfaces with the gmail calendar to turn on the bubble mechanism for 20 seconds when it recognized a course is starting. Additionally, the code interfaces with the IFTTT button functionality which enables instant bubbles with a quick pull down on the iPhone widget menu or a tap on an Apple watch. Code here.
The bubble mechanism is ripped from an old toy and secured in the wooden box with foam . The foam created a very snug fit between wood and the plastic fan mechanism. I HIGHLY recommend wearing gloves when applying the foam(which is the reason I don’t have a picture of this).
The bubbles are exciting but I would like to upgrade the celebration to something E720 would be proud of. First, I would add a mechanical lid that opens when the machine is about to bubble. This would create more suspense to a bubble event. The mechanical lid would also also make the top appear more finished rather than having exposed bubble detergent. Second, I would add lights and sound to go off with the bubbles to give the celebration more oompf.
The Bubbler is at home in the Academy’s new space. The bubbles may pop but the Academy’s impact lasts a lifetime.