Monthly Archives: October 2013

Making Waves

How can we build a boat with 4 paper cups, a square of plastic wrap, 10 plastic straws, and a strip of duct tape? This is the challenge we recently put to the 8th grade physics class.  To make things even more exciting, we held a little competition–which boat could hold the most pennies before capsizing?

Rapid Prototyping!

Rapid Prototyping!

The goals of this challenge were to:

1. Give the boys an experience using the design thinking process with constraints. In this case, the constraints were the materials and limited time (prototypes were built in a mere 30 minutes).

2. Demonstrate their understanding of the concepts of buoyancy and density in a novel situation.

Check out the winning boat below, which managed to hold 350 pennies!

Next Stop: America's Cup!

Next Stop: America’s Cup!




Sharing Prototypes: Presidio Challenge

Sharing Prototypes: Presidio Challenge

We met in the Presidio to share our prototypes with each other. After an exuberant greeting, the 7th graders first shared their field guides with the 2nd graders. They showed them their work, explained how it was specifically designed and tailored to meet each boy’s needs. For example, some included graphics, illustrations, or were organized differently. The 2nd graders tested them out by using the to identify plants in the park. They shared feedback using safe terminology, “I notice” and “I wonder”. Then we swapped and the 2nd graders got to share their designs for bird awareness with the 7th graders. These had a more open form, taking shape in the way of apps, books, signs, and games. The 2nd graders were beaming with pride as their buddies listened attentively and gave encouraging feedback. They then discussed possible next steps for refining and producing their prototype.

During this weeklong challenge, the boys felt engaged (cheering when they saw designing in our schedule!), focused (deliberate in their work), empathetic (honing on their specific buddy’s needs), and creative (generating ideas upon ideas upon ideas). We are looking forward to our next cross-grade collaboration in the winter: redesigning the cable car experience!






















Prototyping: Presidio Challenge

For our introductory design thinking challenge in second grade, Rachel Dionne and Amy Nielsen created a helpful template for planning prototypes.   They made a large sheet (11×17) that included a graphic organizer for planning (Idea?  Materials Needed?  Description?) and an open space for drawing the plan.  Students in their class used the data they collected from interviewing 7th graders to collaborate and plan prototypes together.  While they all were addressing the same design challenge (“How might we educate our 7th grade friends about native Presidio birds?”), their ideas were extremely varied.  Some ideas included board games, models, motorized birds, books, apps, and diagrams.

I also observed students using a generative design thinking mindset, building on each others’ ideas with a “Yes, and” approach.  In particular, we witnessed this exchange between two boys working on a board game:

Boy 1: “How will people move forward?”

Boy 2: “We should have cards.”

Boy 1: “Yes, they should have bird trivia on them!”

Boy 2: “And they’ll tell people how many spaces to move!”

Boy 1: “And they should have answer options A, B, C so people can guess the answer!”

Despite the government shutdown, we’re excited to share and test our prototypes in the Presidio tomorrow!

Prototyping a board game

Prototyping a board game


Using diagrams in books for prototyping inspiration


Sharing prototype ideas






Introducing the protoyping planning template

Defining and Ideating: Presidio Challenge

To introduce the second graders to the defining phase of the process, we created a template for them to distill some big ideas about their buddy’s needs from the interviewing.  As one kid observed, it was sort of like a Mad Libs!  We wanted to give them a framework for defining needs, and provided modeling and some options for them to think about the learning modality they would be designing.  We will continue working on developing need-finding and creative confidence, before jumping directly to a solution.  We will can do this across curricular topics, such as sharing different strategies to solve a math problem and predicting and evaluating outcomes in literature.  I’m reminded of a quote often used at the that highlights the importance of defining needs: Henry Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”

My buddy Connor needs games, technology, and illustrations to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Connor needs games, technology, and illustrations to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Anton needs an app to learn about everything and facts about birds.

My buddy Anton needs an app to learn about everything and facts about birds.

My buddy Will needs games and illustrated books to learn about how birds fly.

My buddy Will needs games and illustrated books to learn about how birds fly.


My buddy Ben H. needs an illustrated book to learn about parrots, how they fly, and what they look like.

Empathizing: Interviewing at the Marina Campus

Earlier this week, we introduced the design challenge to our students.  The 2nd graders were excited for a number of reasons, and working with 7th graders topped the list.  This morning, the 7th graders came down to the Marina Campus so we could interview each other.  We had brainstormed a bunch of open-ended questions to ask them, and they came armed with questions of their own and templates for note-taking.   One strategy we used if we got stumped was to “Act Like a 3 Year Old” and ask “Why?” five times, to get details and stories.  As teachers, we were so impressed at how attentively all the boys were listening and how thoughtful they were in their responses.  Signs of empathy building!  We are looking forward to defining need statements from all this data!

2nd-7th grade interviews

2nd-7th grade interviews

2nd-7th grade interviews

2nd-7th grade interviews

2nd-7th grade interviews

2nd-7th grade interviews

Bungee Design Challenge Is Underway!

On Friday we kicked off our first upper school STEM project of this school year: The Bungee Design Challenge.  Town School 8th graders are tackling the question: “How might we use a mathematical model to design an exciting, yet safe bungee system?”  This project originated when math teachers Garrett Frank and Hilary McArthur were looking for an opportunity to teach linear scaling in a fun and exciting activity. This year I am thrilled to be collaborating with them, and we have been working to create a challenge where the boys must use their understanding of linear algebra, forces, and the laws of motion to build an elastic tether to safely bungee jump an action figure. The project is structured within the design thinking framework, and the boys will also incorporate a deeper sense of their prospective users to inform their bungee system design. The action figures are scheduled to be launched from above the ENI workshop at the Marina campus on Wednesday, October 9. Stay tuned!

  • Exploration and Empathizing: Students watch footage of bungee jumpers to better understand how linear algebra can help them design fun and safe bungee-jumping system.

  • Defining the Problem: Students frame their challenge in terms of what a bungee jumper would  want to experience (i.e. get really close to the ground, long rebound, etc.)

  • Ideation: Students engage is lively brainstorming session to identify a range of possible solutions to the challenge.

  • Prototyping and Testing: Students rapidly crank out small-scale versions of bungee systems, dropping their action figures from tables, the ceiling, and stair-wells around campus. The goal here is “failing-forward!”
Brainstorming Session

Brainstorming Session

Rapid Prototyping!

Rapid Prototyping!

Ready to Test!

Ready to Test!

Our Test Subjects Ponder Their Fate...

Our Test Subjects Ponder Their Fate…

Exploring New Ideas (ENI) Workshop

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ENI workshop

Today I had the opportunity to take a peek into the Explore New Ideas (ENI) Workshop, which is new to the Lower School at Town.  It’s a great resource for our design thinking endeavors, as it provides space and materials to tinker and build.  There are designated times for 3rd and 4th graders to use the space, and all teachers can sign up to use the space on their own, or coordinate for coaching from fourth grade teacher, Jij De Jesus (“Mr. D” to the kids),  who is managing the ENI Workshop.  He’s shared some background about the ENI with us:


ENI Process

What is it

ENI inspires curiosity and creativity in students through hands-on, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM)-centered inquiry activities.


By creating opportunities for boys to “explore new ideas”, and coaching them through the learning and thinking processes, students develop core competencies and skills that are relevant in all aspects of life. Hands-on investigative STEM activities develop inquiry, promote an understanding of the nature of learning, and allow for students to autonomously engage in the process of knowledge construction.

As a school, we also recognize the unique opportunities presented to us as inhabitants of the Marina Campus this year. We want to take full advantage of the increased space and prime location to maximize the benefits for the boys and their learning. In that sense, ENI will draw inspiration from the Exploratorium, former occupant of the Marina campus, and the surrounding Golden Gate National Recreation Area.


ENI utilizes best practices from a number of innovative teaching approaches to meet the specific needs of our boy learners.

  • Project Based Learning (Buck Institute)

  • Design Thinking (Stanford and Lime Design)

  • Inquiry and Science Process Skills (Exploratorium)

ENI activities and projects will involve investigating and solving a real-life problem, or building and designing a product that successfully meets a given challenge. Students will often work in small teams, using collaboration and communication skills.

Significant academic content will provide a foundation for ENI projects, exploration will be guided by questions that provide focus, and after multiple opportunities to research and develop their ideas, students will be asked to publicly share their thinking and what they learned.


ENI will be integrated into the already existing curriculum and schedule of Lower School classes.

Students in K-2 will participate in ENI activities as scheduled by grade level teaching teams, especially during times where the curricular content is particularly conducive to creative exploration.

In 3rd Grade and 4th grade ENI Workshops take the place of the former electives program. Boys in these grades will participate in 2 of the 4 ENI Workshops this year, 1 per semester. The Workshops offer small group instruction (10-12 students) during one hour-long class each week. ENI Workshops for this year are:

  • Lego engineering

  • How does it work? Bicycles!

  • TED (technology, engineering and design)

  • ENI Challenge Workshop


Most ENI activities will take place in the ENI workshop, located in the northeast corner on the ground floor of the Marina Campus.  At times, aspects of multi-day ENI activities will  be facilitated in students classrooms or outside in the surrounding area.

Our second graders have used the ENI Workshop to answer questions about seed germination (How will I know if my lima bean seed it germinating?  What will it look like?) and we will be heading back later this week to plant our own seeds.  We are looking forward to many discoveries in the ENI Workshop!


2nd graders finding signs of seed germination


2nd graders investigating for signs of germination


4th grade challenge observations


Mr. D and 4th graders testing and evaluating sailboat prototypes

Sharing ideas for sailboat designs

Sharing ideas for sailboat designs


Bike repair in the Mechanical Engineering room of the ENI