Winter 2017 Designathon Begins Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. MST

Who will be the young designers, engineers and creatives on the team? Those who go the distance for global environmentalism.
Register now.

What Is a Designathon, Why Are We Doing It, Why Does It Matter?

Suzy, Amelia and their teammates with their finished prototype.

Faces of Accomplishment: the five-girl team of 5th grade design engineers at hour 24 of the Nov. 2016 Designathon.

The short answer to all three questions is empowerment. Young people are empowered to learn when the experience respects them as problem-solvers and thinkers. Here are the longer answers —
What Is a Designathon? This is a learning experience spanning 24 hours for students in grades 5 through 12 who will address real-world dilemmas using design thinking. We will provide the students problem statements, mentoring, materials, space, expert insight, and 24 hours. The event is a collaboration of Pretty Brainy and Poudre, Thompson, and Weld RE-4 School Districts in northern Colorado.
Watch this short interview with Suzy and Amelia, who describe a Designathon. At our inaugural event in November 2016, Suzy and Amelia were part of a five-girl team of 5th graders. The team impressively made a series of prototypes of their answer to the stress students feel when transitioning from elementary to middle school and middle school to high school. This is a wide-spread dilemma for young people: listen to Suzy’s description of the process the girls used to arrive at their solution.
Designathon prototypes developed from STEAM learning.

Iterations of the turtle prototype, from no tech to high tech.

Regarding prototyping, the girls first created a no-tech prototype of a turtle. Next came a low-tech version. Finally they designed and 3D-printed a high-tech prototype. This iteration of the turtle has moving flippers, for which the girls wrote code. If you wonder how a plastic, mechanical turtle can address the awfulness of going to a new school, listen again to how the girls arrived at their solution. They listened to members of their client group. If more entrepreneurs did this, fewer inventions would end up on the dust heap of Stuff No One Ever Wanted.
The word designathon implies going the distance: a full 24 hours, continual design thinking, no stops. Do the students work all night? No, and this fact raises a key difference between our Designathon and other designathons in the world: our students are not university students. They are not pro and semi-pro hackers. They do not attend MIT — at least not yet. They will not quaff coffee and use other stimulants to stay awake for 24 hours straight.
They are school children.
Most are in elementary and middle school. They have the option of staying up all night to iterate and ideate, prototype and argue. But they do not. Their parents pick them up from Designathon on Friday night and bring them back on Saturday morning. Their 24 hours includes getting the night’s rest appropriate to their age. Presumably.
If the students knew that at least one adult is waiting for them to realize the beauty of having team sleep-overs during Designathon, then the event and its energy quickly would evolve. Perhaps girl posses would sign up as teams. Thanks to Designathon, I predict, some of the expected and unfortunate outcomes of sleep-overs would be transformed! Design thinking and prototyping would supersede the mindless sleep-over stuff we now, as adults, wish we had skipped.
Why Are We Doing This? Two years ago I was inspired by a feature in Smithsonian magazine about the founder of Black Girls Code, Kimberly Bryant. Accompanying the story was a photo of girls around tables at a code-a-thon, devoting their time, looking intently at laptop monitors, learning computational thinking. We will do the same, I thought, but with design. Why design? Because the idea of design appeals to the values of more adolescent girls than coding or hacking.
While our November Designathon was unfolding in the east wing of a local high school, a hackathon was trying to get underway in the west wing. Just one girl had signed up for the hackathon. She left and joined the Designathon about 20 minutes into the event. Three boys followed her. One was crying.
In our first Designathon, 43 students participated; 35 were girls.

As with Amelia and Suzy, girls and boys in a designathon have the opportunity to learn to code in the interest of their design solution. The range of learning opportunities before them, including computational thinking, is poised on the solution at which they arrive based on discovery interviews with their client.

Designing a tech-based answer is not compulsory.

Critical thinking and responsiveness to human need are compulsory.

Think about it: why something comes to be, tied to the value humans place on it based on their needs, accounts for product adoption and success. Is the iPad more significant than the invention of the milk carton? In college I was rushed to an emergency room because a 20-ounce cup of piping-hot coffee ended up in my lap. And where was the lid for the cup? That thing that we take for granted to remain securely in place on a cup while we tip hot liquids toward us? It had not yet been invented. It’s a no-tech design. I’m just one person it would have saved from second-degree burns and shock. And today it’s part of a coffee-drinking revolution that allows everyone to walk around with sloshing hot liquids and minimal risk of injury.
Why Does a Designathon Matter? An event like a Designathon matters because it positions students to gain experience that is meaningful. To them. The short catalog of gains includes experience in —

  • Collaboration, including having to work out group issues on a deadline. A ticking clock helps move ego-driven decision-making off the page.
  • Prototyping, which is the other side of Letting Go of Perfection.
  • Interdisciplinary learning, rather than a confinement of subjects. By way of example, think of how science and art are illuminated when juxtaposed.
  • Inventiveness.
  • Experimentation and choosing to try new things.
  • Working with adult subject-matter experts who love their work and want to share their insight and enthusiasm.
  • Peer modeling and instruction.
  • Learning that’s fun. Here I address my colleagues at the National Science Foundation: fun is among the criteria for what works in education. How do I know? My “clients,” who are my students, tell me so. They tell their mothers, too, who tell me. The mothers also say that their daughters think that having a monthly or weekly Designathon is a good idea, and will I please make it happen?
    Girls, here you are.
    We are doing it again. We are going the distance.

    This time we will design in the interest of global environmentalism. It happens Feb. 3 and 4, 2017. See you there.

    Key Event Details

    Register Now.

    • All students in grades 5 – 12 who are at least age 10 can participate, no matter their school district.
    • Feb. 3, 5 p.m. – 8 p.m., and Feb. 4, 8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.
    • Fossil Ridge High School, Fort Collins, CO.
    • Food is provided.
    • Volunteers, including mentors, are needed. Register here to join.