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Making the World a Better Place Through Design Thinking

By Communications
On Tuesday, May 16,  the Mobile Countertop group, consisting of students Spencer Alligood ’18, AJ Dhus ’17, and Skylar Kelley-Duval ’19, presented their invention of a lapboard for cooking for people in wheelchairs to help improve safety and independence for those who are unable to utilize their kitchens fully. They are one of nine groups in the Design Thinking to Open Entrepreneurship class who participated in a yearlong project in partnership with Ottobock, a company whose mission is to restore and improve independence for people with mobility challenges.

The advanced course teaches human-centered design (HCD) and is based on the design courses Innovation Designer Dan Lenzen taught at UC San Diego and the processes used by Assistant Head of School for Design and Innovation Matt Abbondanzio in his years in industry. The course focuses on studying and understanding people (applied social science) and building solutions for people (engineering).
Seventeen students, ranging from Grades 9–12 in two sections of the class, started the year by meeting virtually with Industrial Designer Darshan Rane of Ottobock, a prosthetics and mobility company. They learned about the relative lack of research into the lives of people who use wheelchairs, some of the difficulties surrounding functionality, and the emotional needs that are often overlooked.

Students kicked-off their project by researching and observing people in recruited participants’ homes, researching their day-to-day tasks like cooking, laundry and simply navigating their home. This ethnographic (i.e. in-context) research is an important professional skill that allows students to have a more immersive experience, gain empathy for the population they are working with, and observe behavior as it actually occurs.
From these observations, they identified unique insights that pointed to problems that could be solved, generated ideas to solve these problems and built prototypes of these solutions. Students then returned to participants’ homes on two more occasions to conduct user-testing and receive feedback as the products began to take shape.

Dan Schott ’17 discovered that with the proliferation of touch screens on ATMs and at store checkout counters many people in wheelchairs have difficulty accessing and interacting with them. His solution was an extendable, adjustable, capacitive stylus for pushing buttons and interacting with touchscreens. Other inventions included: an adjustable bag that attaches to a wheelchair, an anti-tip device that swings out behind the chair if the person is tipping backward and larger wheels for navigating rough terrain.
Inventions were presented to the Ottobock Industrial Design team in February and feedback was received on their projects. This meeting included students’ signing an intellectual property agreement, so they maintained ownership of their ideas, a discussion of liability when producing goods related to health and safety, and observations of the logistics of manufacturing.
Each group then filed provisional U.S. Patent applications, finalized their business/adoption plans and pitched to the Torrey Explorers Fund.

“I’m proud of what the students have built,” said Mr. Lenzen, “but I think the research they did—going into the homes of people who live different lives, seeing the difficulties they encounter, and then building solutions with concern for someone else’s well-being—is going to be even more valuable for the students going forward. This class addressed real world problems that exist beyond the walls of our campus, and I think the students learned that it is challenging but possible, to make a better world.”

Torrey Explorers Fund
The Torrey Explorers Fund is a venture capital fund supported by generous parent donations, specifically for LJCDS student projects that need additional support and resources to expand. To receive guidance and funding, students must pitch to a panel consisting of entrepreneurs, executives and local experts. During the showcase, students displayed and explained their projects and then pitched their ideas via presentations to a group of experts in order to receive money from the venture capital fund. Click here to see this year’s panelists. The showcase and pitch were open to all LJCDS students and the projects can be from any class or independent project.

Last year, two projects received money from the fund: Dan Schott ’17 and Rostam Reifschneider ’17 for their skateboard tool slide puck company Meraki Skate, LLC, and Georgia Lewis ’19 for supplies to increase the scale of her Art and Technology class installation. Click here to learn more about the art installation.

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