“Who knows anything about design?”

This morning, Ian ran a couple workshops with middle school students as part of the “Day of Academic Discovery and Exploration” for Brown’s 250th Anniversary. Two groups of around 15 seventh and eighth graders, from Del Sesto Middle School, Aldrich Jr. High School, Trinity Academy, and Martin Middle School, sat around a long table in a Granoff Center studio and learned about design thinking.

“I want everyone to make a paper airplane,” Ian told them. “If you don’t know how to it, just fake it. There’s no wrong answer here.”

A couple minutes later, the students had mostly made traditional (or slightly awkward attempts at traditional) airplanes—two wings, a flat rectangular center. We tested their flight patterns, and saw that most got a little lift, flew a little distance, then fell to the ground.

Flight test #1

Flight test #1

But a couple airplanes stood out. One flew significantly further than the rest. “Who made this one?” Ian asked, holding it up. “Tell us about your design.” Jeremiah had folded his wings twice, giving his plane more lift—it looked like a dart. “Can everybody see that? It’s much narrower, there’s a weight in the center. And the way that you threw it—you threw it with authority.”

Another airplane traveled very little horizontal distance, but looped through the air in front of its designer before falling at her feet.

“We’re thinking about what we want our designs to do,” Ian said. “If our goal was to make it go the furthest, then you totally won. But if our goal was to make airplanes that do something cool in the air, then this other one achieved that.”

Then the kids were sent back for a second go, this time with the option to use tape or scissors in addition to the paper. To get them thinking, Ian scrunched up a ball of paper and threw it across the room. “Is that an airplane?” Some said yes, because it’s made of paper and it flies. Some said no, because it doesn’t look like a plane. Again, he pointed out, there’s no right answer.

“Consider the different metaphors we’re thinking about here. We went from paper airplane, to dart, to ball. What other metaphors can we think about?”

They started to think about the throwing mechanism itself—the user experience. They thought about new shapes to work with, and new goals to direct their designs toward.

The designers hard at work

The designers hard at work

“Iteration is about asking question after question,” Ian said as the students worked on their third and final airplanes. “You don’t have to solve the problem in one shot—you just have to take the information you get from one version and adjust it for the next.”

Some students seemed limited by shyness. I noticed a few girls in particular who looked like they felt out of place—they said they had never made paper airplanes before. Even as Ian encouraged all the students to push the boundaries and reconsider the meaning of “airplane,” a few seemed like they couldn’t quite let go of the standard. I found myself watching these particular girls with special interest, and wondered if they (like me, until a few weeks ago) had yet to play with the proverbial Legos. The students who had a harder time navigating the design process, for whatever reason, made fewer leaps between iterations and struggled to talk about their decisions. When I asked one student how she was adjusting her design, she said, “I’m folding it more,” but had no answer for why or what she expected would result from the change.

But most students really started to get design thinking by the third round, and their delight was contagious.

“Ooooh, I just got a great idea!” one boy shouted. He ran to his seat and started on two pieces of paper: “Two-in-one,” he told me. Two in one, double the fun—he wanted to give his airplane more surface area by which to catch the air, and to do it, he would attach two identical planes.

Another student took off with a tube idea, creating a cylinder with a specifically designed place to position his fingers as he threw it. A third used a wooden stick to catapult his plane across the room. A fourth worked with a square-flapped shape that twirled and looped as it first moved up, and then elegantly back down.

Round 1: traditional designs

Round 1 airplanes, above. And below, Round 2.

photo 2 (2)

Ian addressed the students at the end, inviting them to look at the three piles we’d collected of each round’s airplanes. “The third iteration, there’s a lot more diversity in the different designs. If you look at the first iteration, they’re a lot simpler. And that’s what’s great about this kind of process. Innovation creates this kind of diversity and new ways of thinking about common or old ideas.”

photo 5

Next door at the Granoff Center, Ian and I snuck into a science workshop, where I calmly and coolly held a human brain.