dig-8: Teaching Product Development & Entrepreneurship to 8th Grade Students in Chicago Public Schools

May 7, 2013

Solving a problem through design research, brainstorming, and, ultimately, coming up with a big idea that incorporates design, manufacturing considerations, and marketing plans (and, later, getting to manufacture and sell one selected design) is unheard of for the majority of 8th grade students. Add the fact that they pitch their ideas and plans to real entrepreneurs, educators, and business owners and it’s something very few students have the opportunity to do in K-12 schools today.

For the past four months, our team has been working alongside Northwestern University student mentors to teach an 8th grade class at Nettelhorst School (a K-8 Chicago public school) about the product development process. The program, dig-8 (which stands for Discover, Innovate, and Grow), is part of the Science and Entrepreneurship Exchange’s (SEE) pilot program.

dig-8 launches in the 8th grade class at Nettelhorst School in Chicago

With a focus on experiential learning in entrepreneurship and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), SEE’s approach incorporates unique real-world startup, engineering, and design projects into existing curriculum in grades 1 – 8 (dig-1 through dig-8), engaging students with expert mentors and collaborators from universities (Northwestern University is a founding partner) and businesses. Dig-8, the capstone of SEE, is designed to teach young students about new product development and entrepreneurship in a relevant, engaging, and unique way.

As part of the program, the 8th grade students complete design research, both field and online, to better understand their target market and competition.

The Magic Innovators discuss their ideas during a beginning session of dig-8.

Lucky 7, one of the dig-8 teams, works on their persona board with mentor TJ Kim (Beyond Design).

At the end of each session, each team presents the work they completed to the entire class. The Cre8ors are shown here presenting their persona board to the other teams.

Cellebella presents their persona at the end of the “Persona Development” session of dig-8.

In dig-8, the entire class is divided into eight different groups and each team is given a mentor from either Beyond Design or Northwestern University (some have both) who coach them through each step and encourage them to be creative thinkers and problem solvers.

Andrea Fraga, a NU mentor, reviews the features/benefits of her team’s design before beginning the sketching session at Beyond Design’s studio.

Trevis Kurz, a designer at Beyond Design, walks his team through their “Big Idea” session.

Jessie Mumgaard (Beyond Design), who helped coordinate and design the program, discusses underlays with students before beginning their mock-up session.

“The mentoring that students received along the way increased their level of confidence because someone was there to listen and coach them through the problem solving component when they had the concept, but not necessarily the technical language, at first.” – John Nieciak, 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher

Each team created a home, work, or school organization product that is designed for their persona (which they discovered through their research and selected as a team). The products ranged from a “handy hanger” intended for people with small living spaces, to a contemporary tree design and caterpillar-type storage system that grows with the user.

The students came up with over 600 concept sketches on post-it notes for various means of organizing their persona’s belongings. During SEE/dig-8, students learn to turn off their fear of getting the wrong answer, and learn the power of constructive failure.

Innovate This presents their big idea to the class. The dig-8 program encourages creative thinking and teaches important presentation and communication skills.

Sanjeet Das, a mentor from NU, and his team work on creating their big idea.

Each student had the opportunity to use a Cintiq during their field trip to Beyond Design.

Michael Prince, President of Beyond Design, teaches the students about flat patterns during the mock-up creation session at Beyond Design.

A student from team “The Unknown” presents their big idea to the rest of the class.

Jung Chei, a designer at Beyond Design, works with students during the brainstorming session of dig-8.

Teams were introduced to the “4 P’s” of marketing and asked to develop a marketing plan for their product.

Geoff Trukenbrod, former CFO for the Obama campaign, tells his story about success and failure to the 8th grade class. Bringing in well-known business leaders and entrepreneurs to tell their stories and how they relate to dig-8 is a key aspect of the program.

Each team presented their designs in front of a panel of judges and the panelists chose one design that the 8th grade class would move forward with as one large team. The class will now focus on building their startup around the chosen product, which is a small elephant hook intended for babies and small children (shown in the photos below). The process will include a focus on marketing, personal sales, and production, with the hopes of starting a Kickstarter campaign intended to support this program in Chicago Public Schools.

Each team presented their product idea to a panel of judges.

The Haterpillar concept is presented above.

The panel was made up of well-known Chicago entrepreneurs, financiers, and educators.

The panelists were given the opportunity to walk around after the presentations and ask the students questions regarding their design (prior to voting).

The Cre8ors are the team behind the Elephant Hook design. They were coached by their mentors Trevis Kurz (Beyond Design) and Ruizhi Liu (Northwestern University).

The Elephant Hook was chosen to move forward for the 8th grade class. The class will now focus on building their startup around this product.

Dig-8 teaches students important problem solving, presentation, and cognitive skills, as well as research methods, sales strategies, critical analysis, and manufacturing techniques. In addition, it encourages creative thinking, collaboration, team building, and leadership.

“Observing the students’ presentations today was powerful. The students have come a long way. Each talked about a complicated process in a genuine way and generated specific language. The students engaged in creative endeavors as problem solvers. This is a high level of functioning. All throughout the process the students consistently worked collaboratively and met the challenge at each level of the process in order to reach a goal. I think that has a lot to do with empowering their voice, know-how and understanding themselves and others as co-learners.” – John Nieciak, 8th Grade Language Arts Teacher

The students join together before heading to the auditorium for their presentations.

One of the most important lessons of SEE and dig-8 is to teach students constructive failure, as that it what leads you to ultimate success. One of our panelists, Gavin Campbell (a successful entrepreneur and founder of Steelbridge Capital) said it best, “The lessons in losing are as important as the winning lessons. We all failed plenty of times before we got it right, and it was the losses that taught us to be winners—you study the winners and how they got there, and figure out what you did wrong so you can get it right the next time. The only time you really lose is when you become afraid of losing, because once you are there, you no longer take risks and are no longer an entrepreneur.”

The goal of the Science and Entrepreneurship Exchange (SEE) is to increase Chicago-area (and, secondarily, national desire) among private companies, parents and educators to actively improve product development/manufacturing education in the elementary/middle school space. SEE hopes to inspire and educate Chicago students to become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, innovators and engineers, through inspirational and practical hands-on business and product development experiences.

For more information on the program, please check out SEE’s blog (the website is currently in progress).

If you’d like more information, or want to know how you can get involved, please contact Jessie Mumgaard here. Keep checking back for more specific information on each session of dig-8, which will be posted in the coming weeks.

For more on the story, you can check out an article titled Design Thinking Can Change Education.

We recently launched the final product the kids the designed, the Elephant Hooks, on Kickstarter. We’d appreciate your support!

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