Immersive Design Challenge, January 2016

In early January 2016, the Deason Innovation Gym hosted a seven-day Immersive Design Challenge. Immersive Design Challenges (IDCs) are client-driven, open-ended projects our students intensively work on for 5-7 days. We recruit both corporate partners and projects with social impact, and craft a challenge for a student team to build something for the real world. Students thrive on the intensity of these projects, sometimes voluntarily working through the night. Students often cite IDCs as one of the most impactful experiences from their time at SMU.

For this IDC we partnered with a local K-12 school, Parish Episcopal School, which was interested in establishing a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) outreach program for children confined to hospital rooms for long stays. We asked the student team to develop solutions to the question: How might we bring engaging, hands-on learning to children who have been admitted to the hospital for long-term care?  

Thirteen SMU students -- twelve from Lyle School of Engineering and one from Cox Business School -- volunteered to work on this project during their winter break. They did not receive class credit or other compensation for their time (other than all-they-could-eat cereal). The IDC brought in collaboration and expertise from across campus. From the Caruth Institute for Engineering Education at the Lyle School, Director of the DIG Katie Krummeck headed the effort and was joined by Director of Design & Innovation Kate Canales, who provided key lectures and coaching for the human centered design process. Five SMU students and alumni from Lyle, Meadows School of the Arts and Simmons School of Education volunteered their time as well. These participants worked with the student team to coach them in project management and collaboration, help with more technical and pedagogical questions, and work alongside them to further the project. Professor Rob Rouse also joined for a session to give an introductory lecture about designing STEM learning activities.

In the short span of a week, this team engaged in intensive design research to design, develop, and prototype a meaningful program model. The final deliverables included thirteen unique curricular modules, a working cart, recommendations for tools and supplies, a budget, a marketing and social media strategy and a website, all informed by what they learned from utilizing the human-centered design process. Parish Episcopal School is currently working with two local children’s hospitals to launch a pilot of the program in the fall of 2016.


Day 1:

The project launched on January 6th with a day devoted to getting to know each other as teammates, understanding the project, meeting with the client contact at Parish: Director of STEM Program Jenn Makins, and immersing in the Maker Education domain. We reviewed the Design Brief for the project, generated research questions and explored maker activities through a hands-on workshop. We finished the day with an introduction to design research methodologies facilitated by Professor Kate Canales. Students brainstormed design research questions to prepare for a visit to a local hospital the following day.

Day 2:

Students prepared to visit Children’s Medical Hospital of Dallas in the morning. We caravanned to the hospital to meet with Child Life Specialists, Education Specialists, Hospital Librarians, a therapy dog (!) and to see the hospital facilities. Teams of students interviewed the staff about the constraints of working with children in the hospital as well as the opportunities to make a difference for these patients. As we toured, students took photos and asked more questions.

When we returned to campus, the students had the opportunity to interview two families with children who have chronic illnesses and are frequently hospitalized. The team heard about the experience of being admitted to the hospital for a long-term stay, both from the parents as well as the children themselves.

After the families left, we debriefed and synthesized what we heard and saw at the hospital, as well as what we heard from the young patients and their mothers. Through a structured process of synthesis, we captured our observations, discussed them, and worked to distill them into design principles. We defined design principles, in this context, as constraints we could not ignore and opportunities for innovation that were compelling. From then on, we drove all design decisions through these design principles as we went through iterative cycles of building and testing.

Both the experiences at the hospital and talking to the families (what we call “empathy research” in human-centered design) were powerful sources of inspiration and important opportunities to understand the context and people we were ultimately designing to serve.

Day 3:

In the morning on the third day, we had a visit from Professor Rob Rouse. His lecture focused on things to consider when designing hands-on STEM activities. Professor Rouse gave an overview of pedagogical strategies and then facilitated an activity where students designed and tested rockets.

In the afternoon, in order for the SMU students to gain real-world experience working with kids, we hosted a local Cub Scout troop at the DIG. SMU students were partnered with a scout to facilitate the same maker activity the SMU students had done themselves on the first day. Through this experience, the SMU students observed how children learn, what they struggle with, what motivates them and what kinds of activities are engaging and fun. Given that many of the SMU students are not often exposed to young children making and learning, this was a critical step for the SMU team to empathize with their potential users.

Day 4:

With our empathy research synthesized, our design principles articulated and a curriculum framework developed, we broke into sub-teams. Students formed four curriculum teams (CAD/Digital Fabrication Tools, Experiments, Coding and Circuits), a social strategy team and a business plan team. Several students also committed to developing a prototype of a cart.

Students worked in their teams to do domain research, brainstorm concepts and start developing their contributions. We connected as a team at several points to check in, but teams also communicated with each other as needed.

By the end of day four, students had started designing curriculum modules, christened the project “MakerPlay,” and developed the product brand.

Day 5:

On day five, teams really pushed to develop their ideas. They fleshed out curriculum modules and purchased additional supplies. The website took shape. The cart team started the process of cutting wood, painting, and making technical drawings in SolidWorks, a computer-aided drawing program.

In the afternoon, curriculum teams tested their modules with several of our coaches and their children. Teams started iterating on their designs.

Day 6:

On day six, curriculum teams had a deadline to test their modules with students at Parish Episcopal School. As teams finished their prototypes, they carpooled up to the school to test their prototypes and to learn from the Parish students what worked and what didn’t.

Teams returned to campus to iterate on their modules and begin to move them to a more polished final product.

Time wore on, and as teams finished their deliverables, students either began collaborating with another team or headed home to bed. The cart team also started troubleshooting issues that came up with the cart: How do we drill holes in the steel frame? How will the doors close?

Day 7:

Pitch Day! The final day of the project had arrived and teams faced a 2:30 PM deadline. We were set to present to the client and Parish community at 4 PM. Teams scrambled to finish their curriculum modules, put the finishing touches on the website and assemble the cart itself. Cardboard models of the 3D printer and vinyl cutter were made. The pitch deck was refined. The flow for the presentation was determined (but not rehearsed!). At 2:45 PM we loaded the cart into a student’s minivan and headed to Parish.

Jenn Makins, our client contact, greeted us. Dave Monaco, Head of School, several members of Parish’s board and several families were in the audience as well as our contacts at Children’s, and the Dean of the Lyle School of Engineering, Marc Christensen, and members of the Lyle community.

Jenn introduced us and I set the context for the project. Then each student shared the designs they had contributed to the team as well as the design research and insights that informed those design decisions.

Dave closed our presentation with a word of gratitude. We cleaned up and headed to a local restaurant to celebrate!

Design Principles

The design research the students conducted and synthesized into design principles were vital to our process. This part of the human-centered design process ensures that the solutions created meet the needs of the users we were designing for and the context they are in. The development of design principles was also where we were able to create a new model of engaging students in the hospital. This process generated a lot of unique ideas and create new value and contributions to this area of need.

Here are the main design principles that the students generated:

  • Engaging kids in the hospital is about much more than just a cart.

    • By engaging patients in hands-on learning, we aim to empower these students and give them a sense of control and autonomy when they are otherwise disempowered by the hospital context and their illness.

  • We should focus on kids in isolation.

    • Children who can’t leave their rooms are not able to take advantage of all that the hospital already has to offer. Some students choose not to leave their rooms because the activities available to them feel like they are designed for younger children.

  • Kids who are in the hospital for long-terms stays want to feel like normal kids and they want to connect to the outside world.

    • Making and sharing what you make is a natural way for children to connect and collaborate with others, either in the hospital or back at home. Through a website and social media channels and hashtags, kids can connect to something bigger than themselves. On the website they can also access extension activities and additional resources.

  • Curriculum should come in the form of single-use kits that can be used without a facilitator.

    • Single-use kits take care of issues of sterilization and cross-contamination while also allowing the child to keep and reuse whatever comes in the kit. Kids are encouraged to use materials found in their rooms already. Modules build on each other, so that once a kid has finished one module, they can build on the next one.

  • Parish plays a critical role in implementation.

    • Parish staff and students should remain the experts on the content and operations of the cart. Parish staff collaborates with hospital staff to restock and maintain the cart. Parish students can volunteer to assemble kits and coach kids through activities, either in person or virtually. Parish could also host design competitions for kids in the hospital to share their creations and win prizes and recognition. Parish faculty will play a critical role in designing new modules.

Prototypes & Assets Delivered

Below is a list of assets created through the collaboration and contributions of the SMU team. Digital versions of assets are linked when available.

  • Executive Summary

  • Pitch Deck

    • Design Research

    • Program Model

    • 14 Unique Activity Kits across 4 Curriculum Areas

    • A Prototype of a Cart and Technical Drawings

    • A Plan for Implementation (role of Parish, budget, supplies list, equipment recommendations, marketing strategy)

  • A Brand and Brand Assets (logos, icons, color scheme, fonts, stamps)

  • A Website and Social Media Strategy


Project Update from our partners at Parish Episcopal School

July 2016, Jenn Makins wrote:

Medical City Children's Hospital had us up to Camp Allen as part of their Camp iHope. I took a couple of students along and we shared kits with 80 campers. Children's Medical downtown is piloting two different kits over the summer with a handful of patients. In the fall, we will have students volunteering there and MAKERplay will be a monthly segment aired live in the hospital from the Seacrest Studio. An early version of the MAKERplay web platform that will connect kits across the hospital and then across town and eventually nationally is under development. We are very excited as the project moves forward.