PowerUp!

fInal master project \ interaction design

Power Up! is an educational kit for primary schools that aims at empowering primary school pupils (10-12 years-old) in learning about the energy transition to renewable sources, through an interactive gameplay. By focusing on a participatory approach to research and design processes, it aims at providing children the means to act against climate change by allowing them to tackle real-world problems in their own creative way.

This final master project was realized in collaboration with the Rotterdam-based strategic design studio Oak & Morrow and the The Hague-based international primary school Haagsche Schoolvereeniging.

 

understanding the present

Empowering children to be in charge of their own future means, first of all, engaging them in learning about energy. The first phase of the designed game focuses, in fact, on merging two key points:

  1. creating awareness of the problem, defining what energy is and how it manifests in our everyday life and activities;

  2. sparking interest on the topic of energy, by providing knowledge on the present causes (different types of energy) and effects (the greenhouse effect, global warming), focusing on how they relate to each other in the induction of climate change.

The first element of the kit is an explanatory booklet — also translated into animation videos — whereby to learn about the effects of climate change on the environment and its relation to the causes, most often identified with energy production, and the use of fossil fuels. Providing a comprehensive and neutral overview of climate facts is necessary to allow children — and adults — to make the best informed decisions.

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booklet design

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booklet design

Illustrated with colourful hand-drawn graphics, this part of the booklet is the core element to motivate children in gaining the first basic knowledge on the topic. As the story develops through the game with actions taken by the participants, the aim of the booklet is to engage children with the complex topic of climate change and energy transition, by stimulating their creativity in imagining how renewable technologies could be part of our everyday life. In order not to simply analyse the status quo but to stimulate a change, a little bit of drama can help in developing an emotional relationship with the subject. For that reason, the outlined current situation of global warming consists in the introduction to the game story: a fantasy novel of alien creatures — the so-called ‘Energy Monsters’ — landing on Earth after receiving an SOS call to help humans saving the planet from the self-destruction.

 

exploring the alternatives

Knowledge does not necessarily come from leaning on books. A hands-on experiential approach allows for a much deeper understanding and the development of an individual conscience on the environment. The purpose of creating a physical prototype was therefore to make energy production through renewable sources a tangible process, enabling children to experience how energy can ‘flow’ from the sun, through a photovoltaic panel, into a battery that can store this energy for a (virtually) unlimited time until our next comfortable use.

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concept sketches

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prototyping

The idea behind the design of the probes was to represent one of energy-catching aliens of the booklet’s fantasy story, to stimulate an emotional connection to the topic of energy with the feasibility of harvesting their very own. Providing children with tangible, interactive probes able to ‘catch’ energy reflects upon a cross-fertilisation of contexts that enables to link the school program on environmental science to the real environment, bringing children outdoors where they can physically experiment with renewable energy production on a small scale. Eventually, bringing more sustainable practices into the home environment as well.

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‘sunny buddy’ \ solar energy-catching probe

The modular design of this 3D printed prototype offers the young users total freedom in transforming its shape, allowing for a playful discovery on the (virtually) infinite action possibilities: they can bend it, twist it, tilt it, adjust the length by adding or removing pieces. Thanks to its interactive ‘eye’, giving feedback on the ‘catching’ of energy, children can be engaged in trying out different settings, locations and positions to place the prototype, stimulated to reflectively observe how a photovoltaic panel works, and what happens when changing some of the parameters.

 

designing the future

The third and last level of the game aims at stimulating a discussion between the children introducing the actual barriers to the implementation of renewable energy sources into our today’s society. To steer critical thinking, the final activities revolve around the storyboarding of their own comics on how an ‘Energy Monster’ could become a hero who saves the world. The game mechanics involved in this phase are designed to give children prompts and the creative input in imagining what if... we could save the world from climate change (with a little help from outer space)? Engaging children into this fantastic storytelling, the goal is to bring the children, by the end of the game, to eventually find out that they can be the true heroes of the story, feeling empowered to go out and make their voices heard, calling for a radical change.

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The designed board has a modular design, thought to be a flexible system that can grow with the children as they learn, step by step, about the topic of sustainability related to energy production. It is designed as a collaborative challenge to solve in teams, allowing children to apply knowledge and understanding in specific contexts and under the constraints of specific limitations, while actively exploring the environment, and in collaboration with others.

 

personal development

With the development of this final master project I was able to master research-through-design processes, by outlining clear goals and tasks specifically aimed at reaching those goals. I especially enjoyed being able to achieve them by applying my graphics skills into something fun and, at the same time, educational such as the design of characters and illustrations for the informative booklet. Working for children surely makes a lot of fun, as I could implement several game mechanics and playful elements as in the design of the prototypes. With the realization of the solar ‘energy-catching’ probe, I experienced with my hands on renewable technologies how hard it can be to make something work in specific conditions. This allowed me to craft an experience of an invisible process such as energy. Finding an appropriate aesthetic language for it was challenging but eventually managed with simple elements. Simplicity is, after all, the heart of creativity.

I learned a lot from working closely with such a fully committed client, spending my last semester with a full-time internship at Oak & Morrow. First of all, I learned how to work as a professional designer balancing needed work vs. available time, working with strict deadlines and regular update meetings, therefore improving my planning skills. Thanks to the full support of Oak & Morrow, I learned how to structure a specific market-oriented project, in this case, for education. This amazing team has provided me with the means (and the affect) to hold on to this ‘dream’ project even when it seemed to be too big to realize, or too little time to achieve all what I planned. But they never stopped believing in it, and that gave me the strenght to keep on working and finally seeing its potential. When most of it has been thicked in, that is the best feeling ever.

I strongly believe this project could have a great impact on people if implemented in more schools, for it can support children to learn such a complex societal issue while having fun. In order to have such a validation, I strongly prioritized the research for a test ground from the very beginning of the last semester, because working with users is indispensable when designing for systemic change and especially when aiming at empowering children. Working with the children from Haagsche Schoolvereeniging (HSV) made me realize how much it matters that adults take their opinions into consideration, to make them truly believe their voices can make a difference on topics that interest them. The first challenge is, of course, to spark their interest. It was a very confronting moment, being there in front of a class of twenty 10-years-olds listening to what I had to say and, of course, immediately ready to confront me with an endless row of questions and answers. It has taught me a lot on how to include users in the design process and, especially, allowing such young users to take part in designing projects that tackle issues which are bigger than us. I consider this as a teamwork, because I would have never been able to come as far as I did with this project if it wasn’t for the help of these amazing young co-designers. I also have to thank the school for the complete support to this project and full interest in the topic, as well as the studio for aiding this whole process of finding more partners. I believe my overall communication skills definitely improved within this challenge of meeting stakeholders.

PowerUp! will be featured in the next issue of the FRAME Magazine (Mar - Apr 2019) as part of The Challenge.