First Grade Design Thinking: Radius Toothbrush Project

Luma We started this project with one question in mind. How can the design thinking process improve the collaboration skills and creative intelligence of a first grade classroom?

First grade students are by nature very inquisitive and creative. Anyone that has ever spent time in a first grade classroom knows that they ask questions -- lots of questions -- about everything -- constantly. This can be trying for teachers because we have so many thing to accomplish in a day. But what if we changed our mindset? What if we used their natural inquisitiveness to foster a learning environment that was different? What if we started to harness and shape their creativity into something useful; something that could be meaningful; something that could solve a real problem?

That is exactly what happened in two first grade classrooms at Kutztown Elementary. Kylie Hand and Deb Kenney’s first grade students were reading a scholastic reader about how toothbrushes are manufactured, and they were fascinated! As first graders do, they started to ask questions -- a lot of questions! Mrs. Hand decided to harness this natural curiosity and turn it into an authentic project. As luck would have it, we just happen to have a toothbrush factory in Kutztown. It’s called Radius, and it is an innovative, eco-friendly company that was more than willing to partner with us for this project. The next question we had was how to get started...

design thinking The answer came in the form of design thinking, which is a process of creative problem solving according to IDEO, a global design and innovation company. Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, describes this manner of thinking as a human-centered approach to innovation that integrates the needs of people, and the possibilities of technology. Human-centered means that the design needs to have the end user in mind, and to do that, designers and engineers need to speak with end users and find out what is most important to them.

There are four phases to this process: 1) Gathering inspiration 2) Generating ideas 3) Making the ideas tangible and 4) Sharing the story. The design thinking process is similar to the ideas of project based learning in that when you engage students in an authentic problem they are encouraged to collaborate, problem solve, work independently, think critically, and become lifelong learners.

Phase 1 Gather inspiration

Mrs. Hand and Mrs. Kenney’s classes already had the inspiration they needed to get started, but they wanted to learn more. They spoke with experts in the field including the Director of Operations from Radius, Justen Scholl. “Mr. Justen” (as the students called him) was invited into the classroom to talk about Radius. He spoke about their process for manufacturing toothbrushes and about the other products they manufacture and sell. The students were excited, but got even more excited when Justen asked for their help with a new product they were developing. As it turns out, Radius was trying to increase their impact in the animal care market; specifically in the area of K9 tooth/mouth care. That’s right, he asked a class of first graders to help develop a new kind of K9 toothbrush. Justen explained some of the problems they were having and asked the students to come up with some creative solutions.

Phase 2 -- Generate Ideaspresentation

Students started generating ideas on their own using some Project Based Learning techniques like quiet brainstorming. This technique requires students to quietly come up with as many ideas as they can on their own, before sharing any thoughts with their group. Students were then shown videos of dog owners trying to brush their dogs’ teeth. The students quickly discovered the reason why only about 2% of dog owners actually perform the task on a regular basis. The students then started to sketch some design ideas on paper and shared their designs with us and each other.

Phase 3 -- Make The Ideas Tangible

Once students had their ideas on paper, it was time to make some prototypes. We spoke about why prototyping is such a key part of the design process. “Prototyping offers designers the opportunity to bring their ideas to life, test the practicality of the current design, and to potentially investigate how a sample of users think and feel about a product.” Students used styrofoam, modeling clay, wooden dowels, glue, and tape to make their prototypes. They shared their ideas with our very own resident animal expert, Celeste Ball. Mrs. Ball, our high school Agriculture teacher, visited both first grade classrooms where students shared their designs and asked even more questions. Mr. Justen also came back into the classrooms for a second time to see the prototypes and make suggestions. Student groups continued to revise their designs until they came up with and finalized prototype.

Phase 4 -- Share the story


Mrs. Hand’s class wanted to share their ideas with Justen and the rest of the Radius team so we took a trip to the toothbrush factory and students presented their prototypes. This seemed like a daunting task for a group of 6 and 7 year old students, but they did an amazing job! At the direction of their teacher, the students presentation included how their team collaborated, some of the problems they encountered, the research they conducted, and how their design ideas changed throughout the process. After they presented, the students took a tour of the factory to see how their ideas could turn from prototype into actual products. The next step in the process for us is to wait to see which design(s) Radius can turn into an actual K9 toothbrush.

Throughout this entire process we saw the students collaborating, creatively problem solving, and becoming very engaged in their learning during every phase. Don’t get me wrong, this was not a flawless or easy process. Students had to sometimes be re-directed and reminded of how to work collaboratively with their group, how to value someone else’s opinion even if it differs from your own, and how sometimes you need to start over when things just aren’t working. It then occurred to us that many adults also need reminders about these things.

As we reflected on the design thinking process, we realized that working through those difficulties was the most important part of the process for our students. Collaboration skills, creativity, and resiliency are not innate, they need to be taught, and they need to be taught from a very young age. What better way to do that than creating an educational experience that requires students to solve a real problem? This definitely represents a change in educational practice and change is not easy; however, when you think about why you are doing, it is definitely worth it.