Cornell DTI
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Cornell DTI

Ready, Set, Make! Creating Cornell DTI’s First Makeathon

Making an impact in our community beyond technology.

👊 Making an impact

Cornell Design & Tech Initiative is a student-run project team at Cornell University that is dedicated to creating technology to address problems we find in our community. We are made up of developers, designers, product managers, and business analysts who come together to tackle problems we find in our community, from projects like CU Reviews and Cornell Orientation apps to initiatives like technical workshops with Google and other collaborative events.

In the fall of 2017, we asked ourselves, how can we make an impact in our community beyond creating technology? One of our business team members, Neha Rao, proposed that we host a makeathon for elementary school students in Ithaca, using our collective knowledge to help students solve problems in their own community.

Out of that initiative, we hosted our Ready, Set, Make!, a free all-day design makeathon for 5th and 6th grade students from local Ithaca schools like Cayuga Heights Elementary School and Northeast Elementary School. We asked them, “What problems exist in your various communities?” From that starting point, each group of students learned about how to use the design process to come up with solutions to these problems.

🧠 What is the design process?

For all of our team projects, design is an essential part of how we make products that solve real problems. The design process focuses on the human aspect of human-computer interaction, especially using compassion and empathy to understand your target audience. This ensures that we are tackling real problems that students face, not problems we think they have. From that foundation, designers use creative thinking exercises and user feedback to continue the cyclic process of ideation and iteration.

Many schools are incorporating technology in their curriculum, such as programs like Apple’s Everyone Can Code or Girls Who Code. While programming is an important part of inspiring students to pursue STEM fields, it’s not worth building something without a purpose, which is what design is all about. Design thinking is an important part to not just creating great products, but also how to approach problem-solving in general.

Technology alone cannot solve all problems,; there’s more to making the world a better place than coding. This notion is what led to to emphasize “make” within our makeathon, and focus on the who and why in solving problems before creating solutions. As Cornell students, we wanted to give back to the Ithaca community by creating an opportunity for students to learn about problem-solving in a fun environment. Above all, we wanted to convey to them the importance of being empathetic towards others in their communities.

🏅 Day of the event!

We woke up early on Saturday morning with an action-packed day of teaching the design process to the kids! We planned an outline of covering design cornerstones like identifying problem spaces, performing user researching, using creative thinking exercises to come up with ideas. In addition, we had a guest presenter teach the students an introduction to TinkerCAD, as well as explore the Makerspace in Mann Library. At the end of the day, students presented their design journey and the solutions they dreamed up to solve problems within their community.

Below is a more detailed breakdown of the day!

9:00 — 9:30 AM: Check-In

We had a guardian of the children sign in their child, included giving us a signed liability waiver. This also included permission to take photos and videos during the day.

9:30 – 10:00 AM: Introductions and Problem Statement

After starting with an energetic icebreaker, we introduced students to their teams and introduced students to the problem statement: What problems do you see in your community? We had two college student mentors with groups of 4–5 kids, which ended up being a perfect fit. The pair system helped if one mentor got distracted or needed to work with the children individually while the other mentor could lead group activities.

10:00 – 10:30 AM: Explore

In their groups, students brainstormed problems that they saw in their community. Some notable and popular topics included bullying, crossing the street, worn down facilities, and recycling.

One team brainstorming possible problem spaces

10:30 – 11:00 AM: Defining the problem & Interviews

After defining what problem they were trying to tackle, students immediately jumped to coming up to solutions, which even senior designers can be gulity of doing. We taught the students how to create an interview script to find out how their problem space affected other people. They then paired up with another group that did the same activity to conduct user interviews for one another’s problem space.

This part of the design process was challenging for the students, as they felt they already understood the problem on their own without talking to other people. We encouraged the children to listen to one another and take notes on others’ perspectives, including parts of the problem space they hadn’t initially thought of. Afterwards, the groups discussed their findings and used those lessons as a guide for a potential solution.

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM: TinkerCAD workshop

We wanted to break up the student’s main project with fun workshops and lessons related to STEM education. A guest lecturer from the Makerspace at Cornell taught the students how to use TinkerCAD, which they could then use to make 3D models of their projects. TinkerCAD is a simple, easy-to-use modeling software that allows anyone to quickly create a 3D design from scratch or pre-existing designs.

12:00 – 1:00 PM: Lunch!


Our lunch was graciously sponsored by Domino’s Pizza on 311 E Green St, Ithaca, NY. You definitely don’t want to underestimate the sugar rush, but we played some fun music to help get the energy out. Some of the students were asking questions about actual programming and coding during, which was so exciting to see!

1:00 – 3:30 PM Prototyping

Students spent the afternoon using a hodge-podge collection of everyday items to create prototypes of their solution. We had our mentors collect recycling material like cardboard boxes, containers, bottles and cans, paper towel tubes, and so on. Our faculty advisor also provided us with construct paper, tape, glue, and other arts and crafts materials (e.g. string, straws, glitter, pipe cleaners, etc.). With whatever tools and equipment they could find on our table, the kids used their imagination to dream up ways to make their solutions come to life. Interestingly, only one group chose to continue working in TinkerCAD, and only for part of their solution.

Students build their prototypes with everyday items (left, right) and using software like TinkerCAD (center)

3:30 – 4:00 PM: Show & Tell

Parents were invited at the end of the event for a show & tell session! Each group gave a presentation on what problem they were trying to solve, their design journey, and final project and related features. The process was a bit unwieldy, as every group had to come to the front in a crowded space and bring their materials. Also, alot of the students were understandably shy in front of all the other students and parents. Next time around, we would do a science fair style presentation where parents and students can walk around to each table and see what they worked on.

📝 Reflection

After hosting our first event, we learned a lot about what we would like to do better for the future! Here we summarize some of the things we learned.

  • 5th and 6th graders have lots of energy!
  • Transportation — Many people we talked to reported wanting to come to the event, but transportation to Cornell was an issue for them. In the future, and with more funding, we would have pursued possible solutions into getting students to the event.

📣 If you want to see what else Cornell DTI is up to, feel free to check out our team website, like our Facebook Page, or contact us with any questions or comments!

📸 Media

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