Children are great innovators, or how to start re-making our world one mini-project at a time

How many 8th grade students does it take to change a lightbulb? None, they will use LEDs instead.

No? Nothing? Alright, I tried. The point is, children are extremely creative, intelligent, innovative, and most of all – knowledgeable about current technologies. We have become a nation of superb retail shoppers. But who is raising the planet’s future product developers?

Children of today have great skills of using products – their bedrooms are full of the latest toys from iPod to Razor Skateboard, but I don’t think much of it could be dismantled and then reassembled into anything functional. Children of today, just like children of any generation, crave active involvement in the meat of their toy. They want to use their eyes, hands, brains in the service of innovation, even if it is confined to their bedroom laboratory with a bent paperclip as the only tool available.

I witnessed this craving firsthand, when I taught a course at Carleton University SID department this May to 8th and 9th grade students with the help of my friend and colleague Corey McMahon. In this hands-on course titled Re-Making Your World: From Garbage to Goods! students got a taste of what it was like to design a new product from materials that would otherwise end up in a landfill. Or, as nature likes to call it, upcycle.

Relaxing on a sculpture near Mckenzie Building after final presentations. Photo: A kind anonymous passer-by.

The course was structured around a collaboration with Patricia Lemieux, president of Ottawa Neighbourhood Services (ONS), and Brian Burns, an expert on Life Cycle Assessment. Christopher Viney was right on the mark, when he proposed a PhD thesis, to anyone interested, on the topic of “Why are children fascinated by nature?”. It’s even easier to get students excited about studying industrial objects. The job of a teacher is to guide students to a conclusion and stimulate ideas.

Modern items make a lot of waste: left over bits of food, clothes, disposable cups. Getting rid of waste can be a problem. How does nature get rid of waste? Why donʼt we see landfills in nature? Suggest the concept of upcycling. What if we did that with our garbage? Very little would have to be burned, or buried. Just like a tree that reuses nutrients from its decomposed leaves to grow stronger every year, we can reuse products to save on precious materials. Images: Flickr

We even started up our personal classroom landfill, which filled up to the top after just one lunch.

Identify and Interpret

Students visited ONS and purchased objects that later would be transformed into a useful product. They got a tour of a facility, where people sorted clothes to either resell or compact them into plastic bags to be sent off to Third World countries. I was amazed with how quickly the students picked out components of their future products! The room filled with laughter and discussion as everyone rushed off to shelves and bins, already brainstorming and laying out their designs in small sketchbooks. Some have already started putting components together to rough out manufacturing processes.

Students walking through a stockroom filled with clothes, books, and random unwanted items.

The whole trip took about two hours, and creativity began to flow as we returned to the university. Some of the brainstorming activities were revelational to me personally. There was this one exercise, borrowed from Biomimicry Costa Rica workshop, in which students had to find as many uses as possible for a cup. Compared to a room full of adult engineers, architects, industrial designers, teachers ... well, the score was 165 : 32 to students.

Abstract and Match

Students laid out their designs and worked out all the manufacturing details to get ready for one-on-one consultations with Jim, Walter, and Terry (industrial design technicians).

Hands-on approach really allowed students to explore materials, experiment with components, and truly understand manufacturing processes of their product.

Test and Discover

There was a lot of structural testing, anthropometric evaluations, ergonomic discoveries.

There were many discussions around the concepts of sustainability, which students brought up during all of these phases. But above all, these discussions grew into tangible results, which students presented in a form of final projects. Examples of products included table manufactured from golf clubs and old vinyl records, bird house from wooden dish rack, line of fashionable bags and purses out of old clothes.

Left: Moses with a table made of vinyl records and golf clubs. Right: Mikaela's bird house made of old dish rack.

Abby with outdated clothes and belt. Moses and Ryan posing with a new fashion line of bags and purses by Abby.

I’m sure, students learned some important issues through this course. However, the biggest lesson I learned is that if these kids were at a design table with any of the professionals, we would probably stop designing lightbulbs, and move toward sustainable future in a much speedier fashion. Or, at least, those dreaded brainstorming meetings would become more like inspirational games and less like a chore.