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Classroom Happenings: Smart Cities, Smart Ideas

The Steward School
New skills inspire creativity 
You’ve heard of smartphones and smartwatches, but have you heard of smart cities? Tenth graders in Bryan Innovation Lab Program Specialist Megan Young’s Fundamentals of Design and Innovation seminar course have. They’ve been studying smart cities — communities that use information and technology to improve a city’s operational efficiency and provide a better quality of life for its citizens. Smart cities such as Singapore and New York are ranked as such for their quality transportation systems and infrastructure, efficient use of energy, and effective use of technology. By studying what it takes to make a city “smart,” Ms. Young’s students are problem-solving as they explore some of the topics that define our time. 

Throughout the semester, Ms. Young’s students studied various smart cities. Then, they were tasked with rethinking Richmond’s Intermediate Terminal building and applying smart-city concepts to make the building more equitable, efficient, and sustainable. 

“We focused on mitigating urban extreme heat after learning about this local issue through Jeremy Hoffman’s work as chief scientist at the Science Museum of Virginia,” explained Ms. Young. “Students came up with all sorts of ideas, like making the building a space to explore; utilizing the value of the James River; and creating collaborative art spaces and community gardens in and around the building. Each design had to leverage technology and data to address specific areas of concern.” 

As their final project, Ms. Young’s students worked in teams and used their engineering and design skills to create miniature putt-putt golf courses. “I wanted students to wrap up the semester with a fun project in which they could apply the concepts of smart cities to a project that utilized the tools and technologies in the Bryan Innovation Lab,” noted Ms. Young. 

Each team member took on a specific role: a fabricator, who designed for the Bryan Lab’s 3D printer or Glowforge laser printer; a builder, who used materials such as cardboard, recycled toys, fabric, marbles, and craft items; and an engineer, whose task was to incorporate circuitry and electronics. For example, each of the 3D modelers designed and printed their team's golf club. 2D designers like Gavin Thomas ’25 designed and laser-cut trees and ramps as obstacles for his golf course, while Luke Eiben ’25, using Lego Mindstorms (hardware and software that develop programmable robots based on Lego building blocks) made his group’s project interactive by using light sensors to trigger sounds and make a cardboard wind turbine spin.

“The biggest takeaway from the course was realizing that I could create something from my imagination,” said Ada Long ’25, who teamed up with Charlie Cram ’25, and Preston Day ’25. “I enjoyed learning about the process of designing, and I'm applying [the skills I learned] to other aspects of my life, from creating short films to writing essays.” 

On a brisk winter day, students from the Lower, Middle, and Upper Schools were invited to the Bryan Lab to playtest the tenth graders’ final designs. “I asked these budding designers to pay attention to the testers’ experience and take notes,” said Ms. Young. “For example: What did they say as they tested the putt-putt courses? Did they seem to enjoy the experience — or did they find aspects of it frustrating? This type of feedback is critical to the design process and helped my students understand where they could make improvements to their designs.” 

Ada said, “Most of the playtesters ended up knocking the ball off our course, so a lot of their feedback was about the need to build up the walls around the course. We learned quite a bit from their comments, and that helped us make adjustments to our project.” 

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