What happens when you combine ingenuity, teamwork, and recycled cardboard?
Just ask the students in Bryan Innovation Lab Program Specialist Megan Young’s Fundamentals of Design and Innovation seminar course. They were recently tasked with creating usable cardboard chairs for their Lower School friends. The multi-layered project helped the tenth graders tap into their creativity and sharpen their communication and design-thinking skills.
Step one of the project involved empathy interviews: one-on-one chats between the tenth graders and their younger counterparts to determine the Lower Schoolers’ chair preferences.
Wyatt Roberts ’26, who teamed up with Joey Burmeister ’26 and Riley Carter ’26, said, “We talked to second graders about what they like and don’t like about the chairs in their classrooms. It was our intention to create more comfortable and functional chairs for them.” Joey said the empathy interviews revealed that the Lower Schoolers wanted colorful chairs. “They said they like our school colors, and maybe a chair with a tabletop,” he noted.
Bryan Innovation Lab Dean Brad Kovach followed the interviews with a workshop, explaining to the Upper Schoolers the principles of weight distribution and giving tips on how to make the chairs sturdy.
Then it was time for the students to analyze the information gained from the interviews and come up with a plan on how to get to work on their functional chairs. Inside the Bryan Innovation Lab, our budding designers created prototypes. Using heavy-duty scissors, x-acto knives, saws, hot glue, wood glue, and spray paint (and lots of trial and error), they built custom-made seating. Like all Spartans, they were encouraged to explore the iterative process of a challenging design problem.
“This project was a terrific way for students to engage in hands-on, beyond-the-textbook learning,” said Ms. Young. “These innovators took what seemed like simple materials and created something that met the needs of our Lower Schoolers and was functional and fun. Plus, they were problem-solving in teams, which requires good communication and respect for others’ ideas and input.”
Designing and Re-Designing
After the prototypes were completed, Richmond-based industrial designer and yacht designer Trip Ivey (parent of Jack Ivey ’33) visited the class to discuss his career trajectory and give feedback on the students’ chairs.
“Ask yourself, ‘What problem am I solving?’” he said when referring to the design process. “Why is it worth solving, and who will benefit from this?” He also encouraged students to look past the obvious when exploring design ideas and career options. “Keep your eyes open for different opportunities,” he advised.
As each team of students presented their prototypes, Mr. Ivey, Ms. Young, and the other teams offered encouragement and feedback. Wyatt, whose team had built a chair that included a drawer, told his classmates enthusiastically, “We are constantly designing and re-designing!” Ms. Young asked, “What if the drawer was on the bottom instead? How might that change the user’s experience?”
On a bright fall day, the tenth graders presented their chairs to the Lower Schoolers, who couldn’t wait to test them out and share their thoughts. Inside the Bryan Lab, the proud furniture designers and builders showed off their handiwork: chairs that ranged in appearance from sleek, plain cardboard to bright yellow to black-and-white striped. Some included pull-out trays; others sported tiny pillows.
“The Lower Schoolers were amazed that the tenth graders could build functional cardboard chairs that would actually support their weight,” said Ms. Young. “And they loved that their suggestions were heard and implemented in the designs.”
She added, “Part of what makes this project so great is the chance for students to interact cross-divisionally on a product that becomes part of the classroom and the students’ everyday experience. This gave purpose to the project and inspired successful outcomes.”