What is innovation? What can design teach us?

The word innovation often makes me think about design thinking. This year I have the pleasure of co-teaching a course entitled Design Thinking with a colleague Tak Cheung. In the course, we sometimes use the word innovation to describe the outcome of design thinking. More often we focus on the process of design. Tak often states during the course, “design is a process, and in this course, we will use design as a verb.” Each student in the course develops a personal design journey fostering creativity while working with materials.

A few weeks ago, at the start of a new design unit, Tak held up a singular raw egg. He challenged the class to build a vehicle that could safely deliver the egg to the ground from a 20-foot drop. The only material provided for construction was a 19" x 24" piece of Bristol paper. The students were given an opportunity to develop their ideas and test them out over a span of two weeks.

The egg drop is not an original or innovative project. It has been a staple activity in numerous classrooms and schools over the years. I am using it as an example here to illustrate a possible misconception about innovation. Let me explain more using this example. Sometimes examples from the classroom can speak more powerfully than the definition of ideas.

In the process of design, before you start ideating strategies, you must first understand the problem and understand it deeply. Sometimes during this process, you even redefine the problem based on the insights you have garnered. In a graphic on design thinking produced by Stanford’s d-school they name this phase “Define”.

In the case of the egg drop, we asked the students to conduct an accelerated trial run. This was partly intended to help them overcome their fear of failure and to take more risks in their work. The trial run allowed us to better DEFINE the problem. As a class, we came to understand that the Bristol paper can be used to fix the position of the egg, cushion the egg on impact, and/or slow down the vehicle. Only after developing this deeper understanding of the problem could we begin the search for innovative ways to accomplish the goal. During the project, the students worked to develop a defined pattern in the Bristol paper that could be folded into a vehicle for an egg descent.

In teaching, we sometimes rush to innovate and look for things that outwardly appear new and different. That can lead to a false sense of innovation. Instead, we need to slow down and understand the problem we are trying to solve deeply before coming up with new ideas. Real innovation is thoughtful and meaningful. The innovation in this project is found in the process. We provided opportunities for students to share their thinking as a class and reflect throughout the build. The students were able to find innovative ideas themselves and then evaluate the degree of innovation based on their own criteria. After the trial run, we developed a rubric as a class to evaluate our final designs. The criteria we listed were:

Egg protection during the 20 foot drop.

Tolerance of various dropping techniques

Overbuilding/Durability (multiple drops, greater height)

Loading and Unloading of the egg

Creativity

This project is not really about preventing an egg from cracking. Instead, it is an opportunity for students to take risks and learn about themselves. By carefully listening to students during the trial run share out, and conferring with them during studio work time we coached them individually to develop and deepen their design process. Through this class, we are not so much being innovative as teachers as we are building a team of innovators in our students. Innovating classrooms is about providing opportunities for students to challenge themselves and figure out how to meet those challenges. Innovation should be a process that students develop and have ownership over. Innovative teaching of this type leads to lifelong learning.

During the studio days that followed the creation of our rubric, students engaged in building. Design notebooks were filled with illustrations, predictions, and reflection. Additional tests and material studies were executed. On the final day of the project, we gathered by a 20-foot wall to drop our vehicles. Students took videos and pictures. All students received applause whether the attempt was successful or not. We celebrated the successes and failures. One design successfully brought the egg unharmed to the ground on an accordion-folded mattress type design. Then at the last second, the egg rolled off the vehicle and cracked on the concrete. We all laughed at the comic timing of the performance. The broken eggs were photographed to learn from the interesting crack patterns. Finally, we reflected on what we learned, from the process, the challenge, the materials, and ourselves.

If we want to understand innovation in the classroom we need to start with the experience of students. Ask students what is innovation? Ask them how they experience innovation. Ask them how they achieve innovation in their learning and in their lives.

My school instagram posted this video of the experience.

Below is an example of a student notebook entry for the final egg drop submission.

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Greg Benedis-Grab

Greg Benedis-Grab

exploring the intersection of coding, education and disciplinary knowledge