About 6 years ago, as people who are excited about learning new things can be wont to do, my colleague and I emphatically agreed to piloting a 3d printer on our elementary school campus without actually knowing a single thing about 3d printing. There was a huge learning curve just trying to figure out how to get the darn thing to print out one of its pre-programmed examples. Once we accomplished the extraordinary feat of coaxing our printer to spit out a plastic bolt that we could use for pretty much nothing, we realized that we needed to figure out what meaningful objects we could fabricate – and how to design them. Our research was frustrating. Other than mass producing keychains and other items with school logos, no one seemed to have any idea about what elementary students might be able to do with a 3d printer. (By the way, if you are thinking of purchasing a 3d printer for your classroom, or doing a Donors Choose request, here is an article I wrote on some considerations you should make before you commit.)
That’s when we stumbled across City X. And Design Thinking. And Tinkercad.
And that’s when we learned that we didn’t need a 3d printer.
Don’t get me wrong. They are nice to have, and students love holding their own designs in their hands. But the most valuable part of the learning is the Design Thinking process.
The free toolkit from City X helped us to walk our students through the design process. The premise of the program is that humans have started a new settlement called City X on another planet, and the citizens need help with different challenges they are encountering in this novel environment. You can read more about how my colleague and I used the program here.
The toolkit includes a lot of resources, and was a true blessing for the two of us, as we discovered a way to really engage children while helping them to learn about empathy, problem-solving, and multiple other lifelong skills.
Now there is a City X book (thanks for letting me know about it, Amy C!), written by one of the co-creators of the original project, Brett Schilke. Journey to City X: Adventures in Engineering for Kids begins with the same idea as the original project, that the mayor of City X is asking for your help with various problems. In this book, however, there is more detail on how to embark on the design adventures as members of “The Irresistible Futures Agency.” It includes 35 challenges in the areas of transportation, environment, communication, food, health, safety, and energy. Each challenge walks students through solving problems for the fictional planet as they make connections to our own, real-world. There are still choices when it comes to who their “clients” will be and what their final solutions entail, but there are additional activities and recommended explorations in each chapter that are perfect for students new to the idea of Design Thinking.
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t have a 3d printer. Students can prototype and test with any number of easily accessible materials such as cardboard and clay. Also keep in mind that the broad categories of each challenge make them relatively easy to integrate with science or social studies curriculum.
Once students experience the City X project, they will be ready to do “real-world” designs using the same framework.