Design challenge: connecting community to curriculum

Let’s recap two reasons for a drinking fountain student design challenge. The obvious first reason is to obtain a drinking fountain near the Riley Park children’s playground and band stand.

The second important reason is to create a stronger bond among Riley Park’s neighbours. Water for Riley is a collaborative, community building project. Drinking fountain designs were accepted from ACAD and SAIT students, and comments on the designs from Hillhurst School students and Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association members. In the hundred+ years that those major Calgary institutions bordered Riley Park, they had never collaborated on a project – until now.

When the Globe and Mail, (Alberta Edition) logo published an article about the few educational institutions where “a community connection is built right into the curriculum” we were pleased to be a community-based connection built into ACAD and SAIT curricula.

The Globe and Mail wrote about this exciting new way that students learn about design, and how they apply that design to making life better for others, and the experience they gain from working in the community with real life clients. As we read it, we thought, hey, Calgary does that too.

Way to go ACAD and SAITWater for Riley is your proud collaborator, especially during SAIT’s centenary year.

To participate in Water for Riley activities, email, or call 403 862 1923.

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Donations made through the Parks Foundation; specify your donation is for Water for Riley.

Now, here’s the full text of the article:

Building a bet­ter ap­ple slicer
by Simona Chiose, 2015-12-24

McMaster engineering students take on real-world assignments – helping residents of a seniors’ centre – and learn some life lessons.

When engineering students dream about the global problems their skills will solve, designing a better apple slicer is unlikely to make the top of the list.

Yet, that is precisely one of the pedestrian issues that preoccupied hundreds of first-years in an engineering class at McMaster University in Hamilton. Their job seemed simple but, as they learned over the course of the term, it was as difficult as any larger project: to make life easier for the residents of a nursing home in the city.

“We sketched three different designs but they did not work, or they were too complicated,” said Zain ul-Abadin, one of the students in the class. After much trial and error, the group designed a mechanism that does not rely on the strength of aging hands, reversing the usual mechanism and pushing the apple into the blade.

“We tried it many, many times,” Mr. ul-Abadin said.

An increasing number of university programs offer experiential courses, but what makes McMaster’s unusual is that a community connection is built right into the curriculum. Taught by Robert Fleisig, a professor who also works as an engineer, the course has previously taken on the problems of one individual.

One year it was a burn victim with mobility issues, another year a senior with rheumatoid arthritis. For its fourth edition, the course ramped up and partnered with St. Peter’s Residence at Chedoke, a long-term care home. The approximately 200 residents at the home face multiple problems, from not having the muscle power to operate an apple cutter to wanting a door barrier that prevents other residents from wandering into their rooms but is unobtrusive.

“We never picked one specific intervention we wanted the students to work on. If there was an opportunity for innovation and ideas, we wanted to be able to support that,” said Janine Mills, the director of resident care. Ms. Mills visited the class multiple times and allowed small groups of students to meet some of the residents.

As the term progressed, there were many failures and disappointments. Some designs were rejected by residents during a first test run at the home.

“The designs may work from a tech and biology perspective, but users have preferences you don’t know about,” said Monica Salib, who took the course four years ago and is now one of the teaching assistants.

One resident, for example, rejected a barrier that would have to be placed in the room when not in use. “She said: ‘I don’t want anything in my room, my room already has a lot of stuff.’ So they had to think about storage,” Ms. Salib said.

By the end of the term, the student teams had come up with many solutions, from a transparent half-door to one made out of cardboard that can be folded easily.

“At first we wanted to make something cool,” said Patrick Frankiewicz, one of the students who had come up with a folding barrier. “We learned that we could attain something that was functional but not cool.”

The best eight teams presented their final designs at a Dragons’ Den event attended by professors from other departments, nursing home staff and students (the winning team came up with a foldable cane to help a resident get in and out of a car and walk to her wheelchair). And some teams could well see their ideas implemented at the home.

Sandi Mugford is still using a hand-held portable gas pump designed by the 2013 students. As a result of rheumatoid arthritis, Ms. Mugford could no longer use a self-serve gas station. The students’ invention gave her back that independence.

Since she received it, Ms. Mugford has retaped the pump a couple of times but the design was so ingeniously simple that “it’s nothing I can’t do,” she said.

She remains impressed with how much the students learn over one term.

“They’re engineering students; they’re not taking medicine, they have no prior knowledge of the human body except for their own. When you extrapolate that, that’s a huge learning curve,” Ms. Mugford said.

Ms. Salib agrees. Taking the class in the first year prepared her for the teamwork expected in upper years and for life as an engineer, where big problems can be attacked only in small steps.

“As a student, you want to solve everything, you want to feel that you accomplished the mission, but there is only one problem out of many that you can solve,” Ms. Salib said.

“You have to decide, ‘which can I solve?’ That’s the hardest problem.”

© Copyright The Globe and Mail Inc. All Rights Reserved


Design is systems thinking applied to problem-solving

The article below, reproduced from the 10 Mar 2016, Globe and Maillogorefreshed the tired volunteers of Water for Riley like cool water on a hot day. This article cleared away any doubt of the value in a student design challenge. One paragraph of the article in particular boosted the spirits of the Water for Riley volunteers. It is in bold in the middle of the article below.

The article echoes a long-ago discussion with the late Jack Layton, who said: It isn’t about the world of design; it’s about the design of the world. Water for Riley is about both.

What we can learn from the Massachusetts Drawing Act

by Todd Hirsch, Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial, author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline

In 1869, Massachusetts was facing a serious problem. The state was falling behind economically because of trade with Europe and the importation of what were regarded as superior goods. Furniture, mechanical items, industrial machinery – the quality and design of the domestic goods just couldn’t compare with the imports. Massachusetts’ furniture was, well, ugly.

The solution? Legislators were petitioned by educators and business interests to introduce An Act Related to Free Instruction in Drawing. Known more commonly as the Massachusetts Drawing Act of 1870, it mandated the instruction of creative and technical drawing in schools.

It was one of the first examples of art education – both creative and expressive art, as well as industrial art – to be introduced as part of the broader school curriculum. And while drawing may seem like a trivial concept, it helped revolutionize industrial design and manufacturing in the state. Eventually, it established Massachusetts as a leader in furniture and industrial design.

Drawing. Something as simple as teaching children how to draw, create, explore and invent with a pencil and paper did more to boost the economy of the region than the memorization of the multiplication table or the regurgitation of historical facts.

This isn’t to say that math, history and other subjects are unimportant for future economic growth. They are essential. But combining a mastery of math, social science and literature with drawing – something creative and visual – gave Massachusetts an economic edge.

Today, Canada faces the same problem Massachusetts did 146 years ago. We are falling behind the rest of the world in a number of areas. Some see cost as the problem: Canadian manufacturers simply can’t compete with Mexico, Bangladesh and other countries where labour costs are lower. Some see tariff barriers on imports as the solution. Some call for tax credits and other financial incentives.

While there may be a time and place for government actions, perhaps the Massachusetts Drawing Act provides some guidance for what we really need.

Some of our students might well benefit from drawing lessons. But more broadly, all students could benefit from design lessons. We need the Design Act of 2017, an intentional effort to instill a design emphasis into our education systems.

Good design is really just applying systematic thinking to problem-solving. Usually we think of design in the visual industries: interior design, graphic design, clothing design. These are important industries in Canada, but good design mentality can be applied to all of our major industries.

How can we design systems to extract natural resources in a way that is more efficient and less harmful to the environment? How can Canadian manufacturers design better and more visually appealing consumer goods? How can Canadian architects lead the world in designing more efficient and aesthetically pleasing buildings, pushing the edges of architecture rather than following the Dutch, Danish and Spanish designers a decade or two later?

None of these problems are solved with import tariffs or tax credits. All of them can be solved with good design, but that requires a shift in the way we teach and train our students.

From an early age, children need to have a designer’s mentality infused into the curriculum. This doesn’t mean less math, science or social studies – just the opposite. It means teaching these subjects in a way that encourages the student to solve problems. That’s what good design does.

The failing Massachusetts economy wasn’t solved with import tariffs, tax credits or some wild Buy America scheme. It was solved when educators gave children pencils and paper, and said, “Draw something, create something, design something.”

But the economic success that the Drawing Act brought to the state was not immediate – it took a decade or more to see results. It’s a good lesson – there are no quick fixes to curing our economic woes. It may take some time, but infusing design into our education systems will give our economy an edge. It can become Canada’s special sauce.


Thanks for this heartening article, Mr. Hirsch.

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To participate in Water for Riley, email or call 403 862 1923. To donate through the Parks Foundation, click the button. Specify your donation is for Water for Riley. Tax Receipts are issued.