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First Graders as Clients and Collaborators

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Industrial Design Professor George Scott readily admits that his students benefit tremendously from their contact with elementary school students. "Industrial design is basically product design," explains Scott. "For my students, it's rare to have an opportunity to work with the clients they are designing for. Through this project, they learn what it is like to design for children as well as to collaborate with them. It is an invaluable first-hand experience."

The collaborative project was the brainchild of Scott and first grade teacher Tom Brown. Last year they had their students team up to design and build an activity center of the future. This year they decided to focus on a more tangible product. "We wanted it to be something that could fit on a desktop," says Scott. "Toys were the logical choice."

Working in groups, the UW students and the first graders brainstormed, sketched drawings, created models, and reworked ideas to design unique toys. At the end of the project--after eight two-hour sessions--they had created masterpieces ranging from a miniature pogo stick to a lemonade maker to a boat for Beanie Babies with a viewing window and sleeping quarters.

We knew that the kids would be disappointed if we didn't come through with something we'd promised. It was a different kind of pressure.

There were challenges along the way. Many of the industrial design students, not familiar with first graders' skills, arrived with unrealistic expectations. "We were envisioning the possibilities," recalls UW junior Young Chang. "When we met the students, we had to really adjust that."

The UW students also faced the challenge of translating the children's sometimes unrealistic ideas into a tangible product. The responsibility, says Chang, was somewhat daunting. "There was a lot expected of us, but it wasn't coming just from our professors," she explains. "We knew that the kids would be disappointed if we didn't come through with something we'd promised. It was a different kind of pressure."

By the second week, the industrial design students were bringing simple three-dimensional models to the classroom, where the groups continued to refine them. Finally the groups were ready to display their one-of-a-kind toys at a special presentation for their families. The first graders wrote short scripts to explain their products' geneses and special features.

"I was actually surprised that the models turned out so well," admits Brown. "It was great for my students to see their work in this really professional end-product. They got to take some really cool ideas and expand on them in a way that would not have been possible without the UW students. The project also developed their art, math, and social skills. These kids are going to remember this experience for a long time."