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Sixth graders and local seniors collaborate on 3D design solutions

Combining interviews, design skills, Tinkercad software, and 3-D printers, Brookwood sixth graders are collaborating with the residents of Beverly’s Turtle Creek and Turtle Woods senior living communities on designing assistive devices that solve problems the seniors experience.  

From a “cup spill catcher”  and a “walker clip,” to a “texting fingertip” to a “calendar slider,” the decisions on what to create grew out of ongoing discussions between students and the seniors.

Grade 6 science teacher Annie Johnson, who heads up the effort along with Innovation Coordinator Rich Lehrer, explains the project focuses on personal growth and development as well as science and technology skills. “Fostering perspective-building, multi-generational connections, and empathy skills; promoting authentic design, project-based learning, problem-solving, collaborating and STEAM work; letting kids see that they can make a difference in the lives of strangers; and helping to build civic-minded social advocates,” are all things the students are learning Annie says. The other sixth grade teachers working on the Turtle Creek/Turtle Woods project include English Teacher Maile Black, Math Teachers Kayla Burke and Stan Szwartz, Music Teacher Andrew Luman, and Art and French Teacher Annabel Wildrick. 

The all-grade partnership grew from D-Zign Girls, a 2016 Steep Week class taught by Annie and Rich, which sought “to involve the students in authentic designing and 3-D printing of solutions to real world problems for actual recipients." The group of six girls collaborated with residents at Harborlight House to create assistive devices that would have a tangible benefit to the seniors.  Read about the D-Zign Girls Project with Harborlight House seniors and the Harborlight Community Partners’ 2016 Service Partner Award and watch the WGBH video featuring the Brookwood students: WGBH Design Squad Global video and check out other Steep Week work.  

Planning began in October, and “in November students spent their first visit getting to know the seniors by interviewing them and learning about their life histories. In December students and seniors started the process of ‘problem finding.’ The kids interviewed and walked around the residences with seniors to brainstorm possible problems that students could solve,” says Annie.

The students and seniors have developed strong bonds over the months. “The small groups of students, usually in groups of 2 or 3, have developed quite a close relationship with the seniors,” Annie says.   

After introducing the seniors to the 3D printing and design software in January (the team brought a printer to the gathering to show the seniors one in operation), the seniors helped students begin the process of prototyping solutions, taking measurements and modeling designs with Playdough.

In between the monthly visits to Turtle Creek and Turtle Woods the students take the information they gather from the seniors and work on improving their designs. By the February meeting it was time to review the prototypes. “We did a ‘feedback carousel’ where seniors sat in a circle and stayed put, while sixth grade groups rotated around to different seniors,” explains Annie. “Kids spent about five minutes with six different seniors, presenting their design, its purpose, and eliciting feedback.”

The students are all very engaged in the project and during one class reflected on their experience. Maeve G. likes the design challenge best. “What I like about our project is the design cycle. I love how when you fail you’ll be like ‘nooo.’ But when you do it again and make it better it is improved for the senior.” Sam. B enjoyd relating to the seniors. “I enjoy working with elders. They are super nice and have a lot of experiences worth sharing.” D’Andre O. likes the community service aspect of the experience. “I enjoy working with the “Turtles” because it makes me feel helpful, and like I’m giving back to a community.”

In coming months the students will continue refining their projects and visiting the seniors for feedback. The project runs through June when the students will present their finished devices to the seniors.