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As I develop new projects for my classroom this summer, a recurring theme has been to explore just how many times it takes to get a new design right. As far as I’m concerned, nothing ever comes out perfectly the first time. It’s useful for students and new learners to a subject to recognize this. Programmers call this iterative development, engineers use the engineering design process, both of which are relatives to the scientific method. Sure, just about anything can be fixed with duct tape and zip ties, but to get beyond a temporary kludge, you need to put some time and thought into analyzing the problem and crafting a proper solution. Most of us are used to devices like our phones, which generally work consistently when we unbox them. Our first moment with the new device is well along the cycle of the development.

While some people spend loads of time making the perfect design first, and plan out every step before starting, another approach is to just get started. Even though it won’t be perfect, you will at least have something done that will help you gather information about what works in your design and what doesn’t. Next, you can pick away at the things that aren’t correct in the design while retaining the best aspects.


One of the projects I’ve been developing is a cellphone holder. Several of the desired qualities are: can hold my phone securely at an angle for easy viewing, has a way to attach it to my bike’s handlebars, and it can be printed on the MakerBot. Initially, I started with a few quick sketches on a bit of a paper bag. That slip of paper floated around my pocket for a few days before I found the time to design it in SketchUp. After a bit, I got around to printing it. I was pretty confident that the first one wouldn’t fit, and indeed it didn’t. The openings were too tight and it couldn’t accept the phone. I made several minor changes to the size and shape of the openings, learning some new techniques and tools in the process. The second version did fit, but was still too tight. I’ve saved each of the revisions of the cell stand, warts and all, for future reference.

Fortunately, the process of designing on the computer and fabricating with CNC tools allows minor changes without having to start each next version from scratch. I’ve found that it takes from three to a half dozen iterations to get the design settled.


I’ve also been using a similar process to develop a project for sewing cellphone cases by hand or with with a sewing machine. With these pouches, it also seems to take several tries to get the design just right. While each one does work, the ability to change the design, add features and try different details makes each completed pouch a unique solution. It also took about a half dozen versions to make a new knob for the washing machine.

Working with the Engineering Design Process, it takes both patience and persistence to create the design, make the object, test the object’s fit, and other features, identify the needed changes, implement the changes and make another version so you can repeat the process. Designing in this cycle can be enlightening, empowering or discouraging to students, who are often accustomed to using devices and systems that have got well crafted designs and interfaces.

If you’re a teacher or are working with students to develop more complete designs, how do you encourage learners to stick with a project so that they can reach more amazing solutions than they would achieve on the first go-round? What resources and tools of encouragement do you use? As a student or a person learning a new skill, how do you manage your efforts and projects to get the very best solution as you work? What approaches do you use to keep track of your various revisions while working on a project? Some people save files in certain locations, with particular naming conventions to help keep the digital information straight. Pictures and screen shots are a way that many people use to track the process. Notebooks are a time honored tradition among makers, artists, scientists and engineers. How might these techniques be employed in the classroom to help people learn about designing more effectively?

Chris Connors

Making things is the best way to learn about our world.


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Comments

  1. Addidis says:

    Great post, I get a kick out of how man people claim to do things right the first time. They are just failing to see the short comings of their design.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Some people do seem to do amazingly well thought out work the first time. Personally, I don’t know how that works in their brains. I need a cycle of revisions to get it right. Other people are too eager to say ‘I’m Done’ and be finished with the assignment to get the great work they are capable of.

  2. Addidis says:

    Great post, I get a kick out of how man people claim to do things right the first time. They are just failing to see the short comings of their design.

  3. Tim Kemp says:

    I’ve been working as an engineer for 33 years this fall.  As you say there are many design iterations on the scale of a single project design.   Also,  as the same themes arise from project to project you find that there is a higher level of iteration that takes place and that your initial attempt on later projects holds little resemblance to your solution to the same basic problem on earlier projects.

    In answer to your question about how to keep track of older revisions of a project, you should look into revision control systems.  There are many available, several good ones are free.  As long as what you are designing can be represented in a file, this is a good way to keep a record.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revision_control

    1. Anonymous says:

      Revision control is pretty mature in the software development world, but not so much among students. I’ve seen that there can be a huge gap in the habits and techniques between students. Some are very consistent about naming conventions, keeping track of their documents as they evolve. Others save to a thumbdrive (hopefully they don’t lose it or leave it at home). A surprising number of students rely solely on the ‘recent documents’ menu item in Windows.

      My school has a nice setup on the network which allows students to log on to any computer and see all of their documents. They have to go out of their way to save to the hard drive of the computer. This has been very consistent, but they do not have after hours access to their work. Some save files to Thingiverse, others email docs to themselves.

      Developing a workflow that encourages or requires students to consistently store and track their work would be great, especially if it were adopted schoolwide.

  4. Tim Kemp says:

    I’ve been working as an engineer for 33 years this fall.  As you say there are many design iterations on the scale of a single project design.   Also,  as the same themes arise from project to project you find that there is a higher level of iteration that takes place and that your initial attempt on later projects holds little resemblance to your solution to the same basic problem on earlier projects.

    In answer to your question about how to keep track of older revisions of a project, you should look into revision control systems.  There are many available, several good ones are free.  As long as what you are designing can be represented in a file, this is a good way to keep a record.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Revision_control

  5. Phil says:

    As for convincing the students on how to buy into multiple revisions, at my school we use Ron Berger’s Beautiful Work philosophy. 

    http://www.brokenairplane.com/2010/09/feedback-refinement-ron-berger.html

    It has worked well for our high school students for over a decade, whether it is a paper, a robot, or a presentation, Ron’s process is well suited for convincing students of the importance of revisions. As he is a professional carpenter as well as an educator, the philosophy comes from his maker/engineering background.

    Personally, I love the Google Apps (specifically Docs and Sites) for revisions. Now that you can upload anything to it and it shows you the revisions it is well suited for what you are saying. Not to mention the ability to leave collaborative comments in the documents and sites. Peer review is a critical part of the revision cycle and I am able to work with all of my students and maintain their work electronically (i.e. not carrying tons of papers home).

    Glad to hear this is being discussed on the Make Blog! We need more education discussions here.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Thanks so much for the link to BrokenAirplane and Ron Berger. There is a lot of information for teachers on the other end of that.

      Google docs is definitely good. I’ve used it quite a bit, but students in my school don’t seem to have the same permissions as the adults, which makes it harder for them to use. I tried to have them do some surveys, but they couldn’t access the forms.

  6. Steve Hoefer says:

    When I do workshops I start out by intentionally doing something that seems like a good idea but turns out not to work. Then we look for a solution together.  This gets them over the “augh! I screwed up!” hump and into exploration. I don’t want to teach by rote, I want to teach skills. Feeling free to make mistakes and how to learn from them is one of the most important skills.

    I also share the wisdom of my middle-school art teacher: “Boo-Boos can be beautiful.”  Just because it wasn’t what you intended doesn’t mean it’s not something great. Work with reality.

    Everything anyone makes has a story. Sharing those stories of curiosity and idea chasing is good for teaching about the development process. How working on shipboard instrumentation lead to the development of the Slinky. Or how solving the mystery of the developed photographic film lead to X-rays. Or how Pixar started out focussed on graphics software and how chasing down the good ideas spawned from it lead to making some of the most beloved movies of all time.

  7. Steve Hoefer says:

    When I do workshops I start out by intentionally doing something that seems like a good idea but turns out not to work. Then we look for a solution together.  This gets them over the “augh! I screwed up!” hump and into exploration. I don’t want to teach by rote, I want to teach skills. Feeling free to make mistakes and how to learn from them is one of the most important skills.

    I also share the wisdom of my middle-school art teacher: “Boo-Boos can be beautiful.”  Just because it wasn’t what you intended doesn’t mean it’s not something great. Work with reality.

    Everything anyone makes has a story. Sharing those stories of curiosity and idea chasing is good for teaching about the development process. How working on shipboard instrumentation lead to the development of the Slinky. Or how solving the mystery of the developed photographic film lead to X-rays. Or how Pixar started out focussed on graphics software and how chasing down the good ideas spawned from it lead to making some of the most beloved movies of all time.

    1. Ben Gregory says:

      I got an iPad 2-32GB for $ 23.87 and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $ 38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $ 657 which only cost me $ 62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://x.co/Z9j7

    2. Ben Gregory says:

      I got an iPad 2-32GB for $ 23.87 and my girlfriend loves her Panasonic Lumix GF 1 Camera that we got for $ 38.76 there arriving tomorrow by UPS. I will never pay such expensive retail prices in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LED TV to my boss for $ 657 which only cost me $ 62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from, http://x.co/Z9j7

      1. this looks like ad trolling

  8. Steve Hoefer says:

    When I do workshops I start out by intentionally doing something that seems like a good idea but turns out not to work. Then we look for a solution together.  This gets them over the “augh! I screwed up!” hump and into exploration. I don’t want to teach by rote, I want to teach skills. Feeling free to make mistakes and how to learn from them is one of the most important skills.

    I also share the wisdom of my middle-school art teacher: “Boo-Boos can be beautiful.”  Just because it wasn’t what you intended doesn’t mean it’s not something great. Work with reality.

    Everything anyone makes has a story. Sharing those stories of curiosity and idea chasing is good for teaching about the development process. How working on shipboard instrumentation lead to the development of the Slinky. Or how solving the mystery of the developed photographic film lead to X-rays. Or how Pixar started out focussed on graphics software and how chasing down the good ideas spawned from it lead to making some of the most beloved movies of all time.

  9. Todd Rathier says:

    A new tool an engineer introduced me to is Springpad —> http://springpadit.com.  He uses it to take his hand written notes and organize them into an electronic journal that can be shared with others.  It also allows you to add web bookmarks and tasks as well.  Multiple notebooks can easily be kept in the same place.

    A second tool worth looking at is dropbox —> http://www.dropbox.com/  This is an awesome tool that allows you to set up synced folders on multiple systems and has a web interface as well.  The advantage to this tool is that it allows you to setup private folders as well as shared folders that all sync everytime you log in.

    Both tools are free and both have smartphone apps for them as well.

    I plan on implementing both of these as an electronic version of an engineers notebook for my classes this fall.  It saves on the students losing their flashdrives.