The design prompt: Help a one-of-a-kind ice cream company create one-of-a-kind wedding cakes out of ice cream.
The innovators: 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students who signed up for the “Design, Make, and Market” three-day mini course before spring break.
The audience: Little Baby’s Ice Cream, the Wall Street Journal, and (potentially) many happy couples celebrating their nuptials.
We first announced this mini course project to middle school students by calling for flexible thinkers with a diverse set of skills to participate. We asked for students who would be willing to come up with the best idea they’ve ever had — only to set it aside to work on someone else’s idea that was a better fit for the group. We asked for people willing to balance work and play, and in fact to do both of them the same time. We admitted that yes, we would eat ice cream, but we cautioned that no, we wouldn’t eat all that much of it.
The resulting three days were a mix of joyful struggle, creative problem-solving, and well-sugared enthusiasm. The work of the students impressed our “client,” Pete Angevine, founder of Little Baby’s Ice Cream, and our special guest teacher, Karl Ulrich, Vice Dean of Innovation at Wharton and creator of the Belle-V Ice Cream Scoop. Even a reporter from the Wall Street Journal was impressed with the project when he heard about it through Karl. (Reporter Charlie Wells mentioned the mini course project in one of his articles in April. The surprise continued to spread when we were even contacted by a Kentucky-based entrepreneur/ educator who read Charlie’s article and wanted to learn more about the mini course!)
So how did three full days with tweens, sugar, and weddings turn into a meaningful learning experience? And how did that learning experience impress adults, experts, and business people around the country? Here’s a run-down of our time together:
The themes we wanted to share were about collaboration, creative thinking, and iterative prototyping. So we started by learning a new language: the Anguish Languish. The activity wasn’t just an icebreaker to connect the students across the age gaps of their separate grades; it made clear our thesis that special things happen when we look at familiar things in a new way, and that we do that best with the support of a smiling, supportive community.
Next up we spent almost three hours doing our pop-up projects. Students created robot monsters, cardboard police cars (flashing lights and donut-eating officers included!), an exploding-paint art-bot, and a junk band jamboree. We celebrated the iterative design process — “think with your eyes; think with your group; think with your hands” — as the key to creating their wacky inventions.
After lunch and a quiet period of reflecting on the lessons of the morning, we transitioned to a research phase to prepare for the design challenge that we knew awaited us. Students researched Little Baby’s Ice Cream in the hopes of learning about the company’s culture and clientele. Students prepared written notes and rehearsed questions before we had a chance to talk to Pete in a Skype call from Little Baby’s Ice Cream “World Headquarters” in Philadelphia. Our call lasted about 30 minutes as students questioned Pete about his company’s philosophy, their process in making ice cream and coming up with new flavors, and their goals about catering weddings. We ended the day by trying to synthesize all of that into a clear problem statement about the work that lay ahead.
We started the morning by welcoming a very special guest, Karl Ulrich, to our classroom. We reached out to Karl on a long shot chance that he might be willing to come by to do a show-and-tell with his new ice cream scoop or talk to the students about his process of product iteration. His generosity was disarming: he instead ran a three-hour workshop with the students to develop prototypes and concept pitches for our project.
Karl started with a group discussion to define the problem at the center of our challenge. By asking the students to frame a single sentence that stated the problem clearly, he helped them articulate the parameters of the challenge while making sure that the opportunities for creative solutions remained wide open. He structured the following hours to help students collaborate in small groups and fabricate models of their ideas out of cheap materials and found objects. Both students and teachers felt grateful for the opportunity to learn from Karl.
Just before lunch, Pete came to campus to hear the students pitch their ideas. The four groups ended up presenting eight distinct ideas. Pete did not need to select a “winner” to validate their work; the students were thrilled to see Pete’s genuine enthusiasm for their ideas. He congratulated some groups, asked probing questions of some groups, and took lots of notes while listening to all of the groups. And the students were aware of him taking notes — we later agreed that it was an undeniable sign that their work was something worth remembering.
We slowed the pace of our work after lunch that day and moved from the frenzy of eight proposals to focus on refining only the most promising three. Many adults would struggle to show the kind of focus and commitment that the students displayed this afternoon: they let go of their ideas and the morning’s hard work with a sense of joy and optimism, without even a hint of ego.
The rest of the afternoon focused on planning. What worked or didn’t work about these three final prototypes? What needed to change before building version 2.0? What supplies would the next iteration require? Could these supplies be found lying around the house to take them into school the next day? After sketching, planning, and discussing, the clock struck 3:10 and it was time to call it a day.
Our last day was a whirlwind as we fabricated our three final prototypes. A few moments in particular stood out:
Meeting for Sharing
Just before lunch our students gathered in a circle in an empty classroom, away from their prototypes. Instead of our weekly school-wide Meeting for Worship, we held our own Meeting for Sharing this week just with our small cohort of students. We focused on the query “What have I learned by being part of a group working together on this design problem?” We passed around an ice cream scoop like a “talking stick,” allowing each student the opportunity to reflect and share their experience:
“I’ve learned that sometimes I need to let go of my good idea so that a better idea can emerge.”
“I’ve learned that my first attempt is probably not going to look the way I want it to and that’s okay because I can try again and again.”
“I’ve learned that it’s important to listen to others and that sometimes combining your ideas will help you both.”
The students’ messages made it clear that our work was not just about ice cream or wedding cakes, or even entrepreneurship or innovation. We hope the larger themes they shared that morning will last for a long time to come.
Completing a prototype
The chance to develop an idea from passing thought to shareable product in three short days was a thrill ride for everyone who participated, students and adults alike. The “puzzle piece” cake was a great success; we managed to serve ice cream out of the ice cream caddy on the last day; and the dry ice was even flowing out of the serving station:
You guessed it: eating ice cream
What better way to kick off spring break than to share ice cream with everyone in earshot? (Yes, we were screaming for ice cream!) The final moments of our mini course were spent eating ice cream with middle schoolers, high schoolers, and teachers from all corners of the school. It turns out that the themes of our mini course were not just meaningful… they also tasted good!
The journey is not quite over yet. With the enthusiasm generated by our mention in the Wall Street Journal, and with the quality of our initial products, we are currently putting together a field trip to NextFab Studio to collaborate on version 3.0 of our prototypes — this time with professional guidance, materials, and tools. Who knows where this project might go next!