Minnow Tank

School News
February 5, 2019- What do you get when you combine project-based learning with ABC TV’s hit entrepreneurship shows Shark Tank and Toy Box? A Minnow Tank, naturally. And thus spawned Vail Mountain School’s first-ever design thinking entrepreneurship competition, which took place in the VMS theater at the end of the first semester. It was a culmination to many months of work in three different classes tied together by a common thread of project-based learning.

Kim Zimmer’s 9th Grade, Functional Design & Innovation class, presented toys designed to DISengage kids from devices and ENgage them in good old fashioned play. Grant Gary’s Middle School Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship class shared prototypes of products they developed using human-centered design. Ironically a dog bed won, and that team received $1000 of seed money that they are using to take their prototype to the next level. The third Minnow Tank contributor was Tim Sinnott’s Middle School Hands-On Coding Class. Soon after realizing that their classes were working literally and figuratively side by side on projects that could easily cross-pollinate, Gary and Sinnott combined forces. This led to cool collaborations between students in both classes where coders contributed technical expertise for entrepreneurship projects that involved circuitry, coding, and engineering.

9th Grade Functional Design & Innovation

“There is no screen video game or app that can replace the relationships built over toys,” notes Kim Zimmer, quoting the American Association of Pediatrics, as she sets the stage for her 9th graders who are about to present their projects.

They have been challenged to design toys or experiences for kids to solve a national problem of a decrease in creative play due to increased screen time. Over the last few months, the ninth graders have observed Lower School classrooms, interviewed students, and visited VMS parent Marty Hurd’s Wishes Toy Store.

Stage right, a panel of steely-eyed, extremely critical judges sits waiting at desks equipped with red and green lights that will serve an obvious purpose. There are six of them, but they are seven, eight, nine, and ten...years old. This panel has been hand-picked by Ms. Zimmer from VMS Lower School classrooms. They’ve been specifically trained in the criteria they will use to evaluate toys, but their innate inclination towards play will prove to be their best guide.

Six groups present their toys. The ideas are clever, creative, and thoughtful.

There’s a galactic ray gun that shoots ping pong balls and comes with a well-developed backstory about how kids will be the last line of defense against alien invaders.

There’s an elegantly designed set of plastic connectors that can be used to “make a fort or a car or make a house you can put your car in” out of empty cardboard shipping boxes.

There’s a stackable, collectible playset where kids can learn about cool wildlife like the pink fairy armadillo and help support animal advocacy groups at the same time.

There’s a stuffed animal within a stuffed animal that is a combination of a Kinder Egg and a Hatchimal, and that draws inspiration from Russian nesting dolls.

There’s a miniature ski area called Snow Mountain that is designed to show kids who don’t live in the mountains that “skiing is a fun activity instead of a scary one.”

However, the clear winner, at least in the judges’ eyes, is Astro Toys’ Bump, Jump, Drive. Four ninth graders take the stage. They’ve got a LOT of stuff with them, and they know that they must keep the judges occupied while they set up their presentation, lest they lose their short, but precious attention.

“Who likes stickers?” one of the upper schoolers asks, and he immediately has the judges attention. A quick distraction (bribe) occupies the kids while an elaborate remote control car track is laid out on the stage comprised of jumps, bumps, and 3D printed bright orange mini Jersey barriers.

As it becomes apparent to the young judges that they were about to have the opportunity to play with remote control cars, many of them preemptively start slapping their green buzzers to indicate their excitement and approval. Then, one of the presenters asks the question that the judges have been waiting for. “So which one of you wants to come up and try it out?”

And bedlam ensues.

Two of the judges are learning how to drive the cars while the other four are rearranging the course to make it as hard as possible for their friends. Cars crash. Laughter erupts. Kids start jumping, giggling, and spinning. One even begins to run around the track making car noises and pretending that she is a car herself.

Though only one winner was chosen, all the students came away from Ms. Zimmer’s 9th Grade Functional Design & Innovation with something much more valuable.

“The goal of this course,” noted Zimmer while introducing the Minnow Tank, “was to equip ninth graders with 21st-century skills that they can apply to the rest of the upper school experience and hopefully beyond. Skills like creativity collaboration critical thinking, accountability, initiative, and self-direction that were learned through the design thinking process and that resulted in the final projects presented at the Minnow Tank.”

And though building character and confidence may not have been among the stated objectives, Zimmer noted that this may have been the greatest area of growth for her students. “I think you can't fully grow into who you are unless you're willing to put yourself out there,” noted Zimmer reflecting on the experience. “At the beginning of the course, when I asked them to speak in front of their peers, they would get red and freeze because they could not think of anything to say. They were embarrassed, but then we would do it again and again, and they became more comfortable with their friends, and more comfortable presenting. Their growth was remarkable.”

Middle School Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship

Oddly enough, the middle school students’ presentations were more "adult-like" than those of their older, high school peers. Granted, in place of six lower school judges sat three accomplished adults, each with an extraordinary professional pedigree, and then there was the matter of the $1000 that was on the line.

Where the Minnow Tank was a culminating final project for Ms. Zimmer’s class, it represented only the halfway mark for Mr. Gary’s year-long Design Thinking and Entrepreneurship class. The financial incentive awarded to the winner of the Middle School challenge provided seed money that is currently being used by the students to further develop their product with the hope of taking it to market in the near future.

The challenge for the Middle School students was to develop a product that used human-centered design to fill a need in people’s lives and pitch it to the judges in less than four minutes.

“The Buddy” was a rolling organizer for children designed to help them carry things. It stemmed from an assignment earlier in the year that challenged the group to help the school’s kitchen staff carry hundreds of pounds of food at one time.

“Louise,” a line of clothing designed for girls ages 6-14, used a clever convertible design that allowed one garment to serve many purposes. As an example, the group presented a dress that instantly transformed from a shorter version designed for play to a more formal long dress suited for evening occasions.

“The Plant Bot” group employed the skills of Mr. Sinnott’s Hands on Coding class to create an Arduino controller based device that could automatically water plants based on moisture readings from probes in the soil.

“Booskis” were aptly described as the ski equivalent of an e-bike. Using, a motor, a belt and drive components created with the school’s 3D printer, these skis offered an uphill assist for those who wanted to go farther, faster while backcountry touring.

“Securitune” also used an Arduino controller based solution to control a locking mechanism. In place of an alphanumeric code, a string of notes played on a mini keyboard served as the password. The example given was “Imagine if your password was the song ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’”

“The Intellican” was designed to help demystify the recycling process. Using voice recognition, the group envisioned a three-bin trashcan that you could speak to and that would tell you whether a given item should go to trash, recycling, or compost.

“H2 Know” was a waterbottle collared with a digital screen that could be synced via Bluetooth to one’s calendar and that would prompt the owner of upcoming obligations in a more discrete manner than a phone or laptop.

"Intellight" solved the problem of not being able to find things in bags by using an electonic smart film that can be made either transparent or opaque at the flick of a switch.

“Grip” was a product purpose-built for a local ski racer who needed a way to keep directional ski poles from rotating in her prosthetic hand.

“Ruff and Tumble” was perhaps the simplest idea of the evening, but also won for this reason. The group created a pet bed with cooling packs that would provide dogs and other animals with a soft, yet cool place to sleep. The inspiration, according to the group, is that dogs love the comfort of their human’s bed, but also the cooling effect of concrete floors. Their product provided both.

The heart of the Ruff and Tumble was packs of Orbeez—tiny, absorbent beads that grow into squishy, bouncy balls when soaked in water. Normally used as a sensory toy for young children, or a meditative stress reliever for adults, it turns out that Orbeez are also quite good at holding heat or cold. During the presentation, one of the judges remarked that the cooling pack was in fact still cool after being out of the refrigerator for 10 hours.

Each group also presented a plan illustrating how they would use the $1000 investment to further develop their product. For Ruff and Tumble, they envisioned 1) creating a website, 2) investing in higher quality materials and building out the first run of their product line, 3) donating rough and tumble beds to the Eagle Valley Animal Shelter, and 4) working to get the beds into pet stores such as Petco and Petsmart.

The judges' role was to ask questions of each group and provide feedback that might help the young entrepreneurs recognize challenges and opportunities that they might not have seen. Things like production costs, markup and pricing strategy; barriers to entry, competition and protecting intellectual property; and ways to generate additional revenue by using a product as a medium for advertising.

While announcing the winner, one of the judges noted, “We were genuinely impressed by the ideas and thought tracking of all the people involved. We looked at all the ideas and decided to give one award based on design simplicity and its ability to get to market the quickest. Many would take six months, or a year two years, but (Ruff and Tumble) could get to market very quickly.”

“And that’s the goal,” says Mr. Gary of how the kids will use the $1000 at their disposal. “We're going to use that money to create something that's good enough to sell on Kickstarter and see if the kids can then start a real business from there.”

Mr. Gary reflecting on the growth of his students noted, “The kids truly stepped up. I gave them this extremely challenging final task to get up in front of a couple of hundred people and three serious adult judges who have been highly, highly successful in their careers, and to pitch an idea. That's really high pressure for kids who are just 11-13 years old.”

So, What’s Next?

This semester, Ms. Zimmer’s class is tackling a similar challenge as the previous group of ninth graders. They will be designing games, both board and outdoor play-type games that might have the potential to add some more fun to Field Day.

Mr. Gary’s class will be the same group of Middle School students, and they’re going to tackle a very real and relevant challenge: redesigning the experience in Vail’s Town Center for teens. This month, the students will meet with representatives from the Town of Vail, who serendipitously, are working on this very same project. By the end of the semester, the hope is for the VMS students to pitch ideas to the council with the potential of really having these projects come to life.