Prototyping Rapidly, and Over the Course of Three Academic Years

Teacher Designer: Angi Chau

By Elsa Fridman Randolph

Here is a teacher daring to design.

Teacher Designer: Angi Chau

Angi Chau is the Director of the Bourn Idea Lab, a faculty member in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Faculty Advisor for FIRST Robotics Team 1700 at Castilleja School, an independent, all-girls school located in Palo Alto, California. Angi comes from an engineering background, having completed a PhD in bioengineering. She originally wanted to teach at the college level, but soon found herself frustrated with the traditional lecture formats of most university courses, which led her to look for teaching opportunities in K12.

As Director of the Bourn Idea Lab, Angi runs what one of her colleagues described as Castelleja’s own ‘in-house design lab.’ Subject teachers come to the lab to collaborate with Angi and Resident Tinkerer Diego Fonstad when they want to incorporate some aspect of making into their curriculum. As a team, they create custom projects with the subject teacher using design thinking to ensure that all of the teacher’s goals and needs are met. The team starts each new project by interviewing the subject teacher to really understand his or her needs and desired learning outcomes. They then create various rapid prototypes of potential making projects that the subject teacher can try out and give feedback on until collectively, they reach the right iteration of the project that will meet the teacher’s goals and create an engaging learning experience for the students.

“If we don’t help teachers fulfill their learning objectives, they’ll see the making project as an add-on versus just an interesting alternative way to teach the exact same topic in a different and engaging manner.”

The How Might We Question

How might we teach the basic concepts of microscopy to 7th graders through a hands-on making activity?

The Opportunity

At Castelleja, 7th grade Science is dedicated to Life Science — a big part of which requires examining subjects under microscopes. Under the traditional curriculum, students received a lecture about the various parts of the microscope and the proper way to prepare slides, knowledge that they would need to repeatedly apply over the course of the year. However, the Life Science teacher, Christina Courtney, noticed that when the use of a microscope was required a few weeks after the lecture introduction, most students had failed to retain the information and were incapable of preparing or troubleshooting their microscopes. Looking to design a different type of learning experience for her students, Christina approached Angi and Diego with the idea of having students build their own microscopes, which would allow her to create a more engaging activity that would help the students get a better understanding of how microscopes work.

Using that initial seed of an idea as a starting point, Angi and Diego ran through the design thinking process to create a making activity that would fulfill the teacher’s needs and desires. They interviewed Christina to get a deep understanding of her needs and learning outcomes — she wanted the students to understand the basic essential parts of a microscope and have them feel comfortable doing some simple troubleshooting on their own if they were unable to see anything in their slides. The team then created the first prototype of a making project that would fulfill Christina’s desire to have her students be confident users of microscopes.

“That was how we built empathy for the teacher. You don’t have all that much time so tell us what you care about and what you don’t care about the students learning.”

The Solution

The team’s first prototype was beautiful but far more complex than the learning outcomes desired by the teacher. After getting that feedback, the team went back and iterated on their prototype. They simplified it by taking out a lot of the mechanisms that were interesting but not essential to gain a basic understanding of microscopy. Christina liked the simplified second iteration and decided that it was ready to be tried out with her class. Angi and Diego prepared little assembly kits, from which the students would build the microscopes in pairs. Angi also created a short instructional video for the students to see how to assemble the microscopes.

After observing the students using the kits, the team found that having two students build one microscope did not help to establish their confidence as users of microscopes. For example, in some pairs, one of the partners would do the full assembly while the other looked on, while other teams divided the building. In either case, the person observing was missing out on the learning. With this insight, the team prepared a kit for every student to build their own individual microscope in the second year. They also changed the design a little based on their observations of how the students were actually using the pieces in the kit.

In its third year, the kit was modified slightly once more to troubleshoot problem areas that the students were running into during the assembly process. As Angi notes, “We’re okay with kids being frustrated or having some problems when building when we think it actually has educational value. But when it’s just annoying and taking up too much time and not teaching them anything, then we think it’s worthwhile to change it.” Now that the kit is well-honed, it only takes the students one class period to complete building their microscopes, which has prompted Christina to come back to the team to add on a design challenge for the students. Using the design thinking process to ensure that the project satisfied her outcomes has helped build the Christina’s confidence in both the process and the ability of the Bourn Lab team to create engaging learning experiences for students.

“She became much more open to us trying new things because she knows that if it doesn’t work, she can be honest with her feedback so that we won’t insist on doing it again and we are also open to keep refining it until it fits her needs.”

Angi’s Design Thinking Moment

Angi was very familiar with the design thinking process given her background in engineering. When I asked her what distinguished design thinking from engineering, she highlighted the focus on the user and on quick prototyping, which is at the heart of the design thinking process.

“The biggest distinguishing factor between design thinking versus engineering is the human-centered, user-centric part of it. Design thinking is about really understanding where the user is coming from and what their wishes and desires are. That and the iteration — quick prototyping and quickly iterating based on user feedback. Again, going back to the user and really taking that feedback and not just shoving it into a cabinet but just keeping on iterating over and over until we get to an improved solution. That is the core of design thinking.”