Brainstorm, Create, Fail. Keep Going.

April 11, 2019 — Mia Flowers ’19 likes to get together with kids and solve problems. 

This year she launched a program called Tinkrlab, which she developed in her Social Entrepreneurship class. She taught middle-schoolers and elementary-school-age kids how to use the 3D-modeling program Tinkercad to create objects and a 3D printer to bring those objects to life. The goal was to introduce the students to design thinking and modeling — essentially collaborating, brainstorming, and testing different solutions to a problem. The process, Flowers says, can help “preserve students’ creative abilities so when they go to high school, they’re more able to be proactive in the classroom, accept failure, and work back from their failure.”

There’s a lot that can go wrong with 3D printing, according to Flowers, which makes it the perfect vehicle for helping kids avoid getting stuck on trying to make something perfect. “They had to figure out the proper structure” for the objects they were creating, she says. “They’d say, ‘I want to make this spaceship and I want to add an alien on it, but how do I do it so the alien doesn’t fall off or melt’” when it's printed?

In Flowers’s Social Entrepreneurship course, which she started last year as a junior and continued this year as a senior, each NMH student was asked to tackle a social issue they were interested in. Flowers wanted to work with kids to keep their intellectual curiosity and flexibility strong as they got older. After much research and networking, she developed a curriculum and a program that she presented last fall at the public library in nearby Greenfield, Massachusetts, and this winter on campus for children of NMH employees. 

She started each program by asking the kids to build towers out of dried spaghetti, marshmallows, and masking tape. The tallest standing tower wins; shorter ones, or those that collapse, lose. “We tried this in our Social Entrepreneurship class, and most of us failed,” Flowers says. Her research indicated that the younger a person is, the more successful they are at this kind of project because they keep trying different ways to make the tower. “Kindergarteners typically fail and start over five times, while adults focus on one project,” Flowers explains. “Lawyers are the worst at it.”

After the spaghetti-and-marshmallow construction, Flowers introduces the web-based Tinkercad modeling program, and students work on Chromebooks to design their projects. In the NMH library one Sunday afternoon, Flowers asked a couple of them to present what they were working on. “Through trial and error, they’re getting an understanding of prototyping, and how failures add to learning, and they ultimately end up with a finished product,” she says. Using a Chromebook and a projector, a girl named Sarah presented an airplane, showing different views from the top and sides. “I started with the body and then did the wings,” she said. Tad, who made an American flag, explained his creative process: “The stripes were the easier part. The stars were very hard. Fifty stars took me a long time.”

Flowers smiled and nodded. She hopes to expand Tinkrlab beyond NMH next year by establishing programs, run by recent NMH graduates, on several college campuses.