Fifth-Grade Students Solve Classroom Challenges One Design at a Time

April 14, 2022


A student extends a hand out to demonstrate an invention to a group of Lower School students at the Design Convention in the Union.
Fifth-grade students had the opportunity to demonstrate their very own creations that could solve real-world problems in Wheeler School classrooms as part of this year’s Design Showcase on April 13.

Whether you were looking for an easier way to erase those hard-to-reach places on a whiteboard, or perhaps a convenient way to organize stationary, Wheeler 5th-graders presented plenty of classroom solutions at the Design Challenge Showcase on Tuesday morning.

While previous years have been more open-ended in the form of an annual “Invention Convention,” this year, students attempted to solve real design challenges proposed by faculty at Wheeler. Dylan Ryder, director of the Hirsch/Alperin Design-Innovate-Build (DIB) Lab, approached teachers throughout Lower School to learn about classroom difficulties related to areas from organization to accessibility, and ultimately created 10 different design jobs in need of some creative thinking.

“It still gives students a choice, but they have an authentic challenge and that motivates different people in different ways,” Ryder said. For example, students might be interested in working with certain materials or want to help out a certain teacher or classroom in particular.

After selecting their challenge, the students have been regularly meeting since the end of winter break to learn the fundamentals of the design process from start to finish, Ryder said. They also learn the importance of “design empathy” by taking into account differences in height, ability, and other user characteristics. “They each get a design brief where I give them a few scaffolds like some prompt questions: Have they taken measurements? Have they asked the teacher what exactly the teacher needs?”

A student raises a tool they created alongside fellow students as a teacher watches the demonstration while seated.
Wheeler 5th-graders were surprised at the many teachers and students in attendance, which included peers and faculty from both Middle School and Upper School.

Some of the projects students worked on included special bulletin board mini-shelves, a custom doorstop, a specialized pull cord for projector screens, and a protective cover for chalk. The 5th-graders enjoyed the freedom to design, create, and test their creations and also, perhaps most importantly, learn from mistakes.

“Whether you’re making iPhones or sneakers or video games, there is a prototype and testing process where students have to expect failure, which is really important because we want them to be comfortable with that,” Ryder said.

The 5th-graders came prepared for Tuesday’s showcase with their inventions, presentations, and charisma as they met with fellow students, faculty, and staff from across Wheeler. When asked to share their reflections about the experience, several students said they were surprised by how many Middle School and Upper School students and teachers showed up to see demonstrations of their newly minted designs.

“I was surprised that there were so many people there of all different ages, from kindergarten to high school,” said Ansley Fowler ’29. “I was also surprised that everyone was so excited to see our designs, even the older kids.”

Solomon O’Connell ’29 felt the same way. “I knew there were going to be a lot, but I was still surprised,” he said.

Ella Baill ’29 was pleased that “a lot of kids were seriously interested” in their designs. “Something that made me proud was that a lot of teachers said that they would want to have one of their own copies of our invention.”

Some students even had their ambition set on creating other things in the future. Sage Johnston’s ’29 group already proposed another potential invention. “It would have one of those magnetic erasers for pulling down the projector and erasing. For the teachers that don’t have a magnetic white board they would have a holder for their eraser if it’s in the way.”

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