Sneakers, Telephones, Cups, and Curls: The Power of Invention in Everyday Life

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, September 13, 2006

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Product Design

Subject Area

  • Arts
  • Language Arts
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

One fifty-minute class period


Problem solving is an essential element of the design process. In this activity students will learn how to identify and solve problems as they modify the design of an everyday household item. They will learn about innovation, gather and analyze information, and work in collaborative teams to create a design plan for a new product.

National Standards


Students will do the following:
  • make connections between prior knowledge and new information
  • summarize information from varied sources
  • analyze the components of varied products
  • identify problems
  • generate new ideas and solutions
  • synthesize information
  • evaluate information
  • create a written presentation
  • create a visual representation


  • "New and Improved!" handout


  • computer with Internet access


Building Background Talking Trash Cans

The purpose of this activity is to help students begin to understand the role that problem solving plays in the design process. 1. As a class, read the following article that highlights innovative problem solving. The article describes the efforts of a group of Boston University engineering students who designed solar powered trash cans that "talk" to each other. 2. Discuss students' reactions to the article. Use the following questions to guide the discussion:
  • Why do you think the Boston University students invented these trash cans?
  • What problem were they trying to solve?
  • Can you think of other inventions that solved problems?
  • Why are new products invented?
  • Can you find an example of a product in your classroom that was designed to solve a problem? (Possible examples might include a whiteboard, a file cabinet, an answering machine, a computer desk, a plant stand, a coat rack, etc.) Encourage students' creativity as they explore the classroom environment from a design perspective. Help them focus on understanding why products are designed in specific ways.
Steps for Learning

 Brainstorm, Analyze, Create and Defend

The purpose of this activity is to encourage students to identify a problem that relates to an everyday item they use and generate a solution by creating a new and improved product design. 1. Divide the class into groups of four or five students. Provide a copy of the "New & Improved" handout below to each group. If possible, allow time for students to share their work.



Create a class rubric with your students that will help them understand the effectiveness of their design process. Use the following guidelines to help create the rubric. -How effective was your brainstorming in generating ideas? Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor -Rate how effectively you analyzed the information you used to identify your problem. Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor -Rate the effectiveness of your solution. Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor -Rate how clearly you communicated the problem you wanted to solve. Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor -Rate how clearly you communicated your solution. Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor -Rate your effectiveness as problem solvers. Excellent              Good         Adequate         Poor

Enrichment Extension Activities

Activity One: Hall of Fame
After discussing, reviewing and critiquing each group's work, have the students create a design hall of fame. Invite others in the school to view students' creations.
Activity Two: Charles Harrison: Design for Life
As a class, listen to National Public Radio's feature on Charles Harrison, an industrial product designer and artist who creates masterpieces out of everyday items.  Discuss the students' reactions to the audio transcript. Use the following questions to guide your discussion:
  • Why did Harrison design garbage cans with wheels?
  • What did Harrison think about design?
  • What life challenges did Harrison face that influenced his ideas about design?
If the audio isn't available another resource is "Intelligent Designer ."

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