Viewing the world with an artist’s eye. Creating projects rooted in empathy. Empowering students with iteration and innovation.
Christine Braun is an I-Lab engineer and the Hillsborough campus shop manager. She also serves as First Tech Team coach and has worked as a member of the lower school expedition team during Nueva Summer for the past two years.
Throughout the past year, Christine has been a fixture on the Hillsborough campus, using the I-Lab as her home base while teaching, leading, and planning for design thinking-related initiatives. She is also a lit club facilitator for a seventh- and eighth-grade lit club.
Jim Morrison: What are some of the ideas and projects you are currently working on with students?
Christine Braun: Purposeful Design is the seventh-grade design engineering (DE) class that I have been creating since last spring, and I am excited to finally be introducing it to students.
The course focuses on systems dynamics to aid with need finding, user experience to provide a deeper dive into the interview process, and sustainability with materials, all within the lens of invention education.
The systems dynamics introduction is a broad, 500-foot view of systems thinking, offering a way to more precisely identify the need, and this introduction lays a foundation for the ninth-grade Design with Impact class. User experience and sustainability are at the core of the class.
Students will invent animal enrichment activities for the animals at the Oakland Zoo, in which the challenge is for students to consider all materials they will use as they cannot harm the animals, and must have a second life (meaning the material can be used in another way after the animal is done using it). A great example of this would be an enrichment activity designed for a parrot in which the material is shredded. That shredded material will then become the bedding for another animal. Once this bedding needs to be changed, the material becomes compost for the trees at the zoo.
Each invention must have a multilayered purpose with sustainability at the forefront of the design.
JM: Do you have a favorite project?
CB: GoBabyGo is by far my favorite project at Nueva. Our First Tech Challenge robotics team works with therapists from the California Children’s Service program to identify children between 15 and 36 months of age who have certain diseases or health problems and would benefit from using a ride-on car as a strengthening device in preparation for a wheelchair.
In working to create a ride-on car, the members of FTC move the power controls from the pedal of the vehicle to a large button on the steering wheel. They design a PVC armature around the car, which will allow the child to be harnessed into the car.
The child for whom we are currently building a ride-on car is the most in need of any of the children I have previously worked with: the child only has the ability to move one finger and wrist on the same arm. This created a unique challenge for my students, as the button normally mounted to the steering wheel will not work for this child. Students began by exploring the questions, “Where is the best place for the button?” and “How can caregivers move the button easily once the child’s wrist flick strengthens from a side motion to a downward motion?”
My favorite part of this project is always when the child uses the car for the first time. During non-COVID times, the family comes to the I-Lab so the students can meet them and see the impact their work has on others. Students delight in seeing the joy children have when they are able to move on their own for the first time.
JM: What have been the challenges, surprises, and advantages of working remotely?
CB: A unique challenge for my classes has been engineering collaboratively in this remote environment.
On the other side, students are able to have more ownership of a project, as I can offer advice and guidance only to a certain point. I have been very impressed with the quality of work as students are no longer hindered by I-Lab shop hours: they have the freedom at home to continue designing, inventing, and progressing on projects at their will.
One huge advantage for me this year has been using Figma with my students. Figma is a collaborative design tool that allows students to build on one another designs, easily a class can move to one student page simultaneously for critiques without me screen sharing, and I can easily see if a student is on task by monitoring their name tag in the system.
JM: What is a personal project you are working on right now?
CB: Outside of Nueva, my focus is on my family, so I dabble in projects at home. For instance, I have a six-foot canvas I have been slowly painting, and I am designing a couch for our living room. I challenge myself to create things that work better for my large family rather than purchasing something and then struggling to get it to fit our needs.
JM: Can you identify a time in your life that pointed you toward teaching, working with tools, and adopting a design thinking mindset?
CB: I am an artist, which I believe offers a different way of perceiving the world. Artists see the world as a collection of opportunities and niches, a place to add in one’s thoughts or a way to build on another’s. Artists use the design thinking skill set each time they create. When I made something on commission it was a constant feedback loop with the buyer, similar to how I teach design thinking now.
JM: What tool or area of the shop gets most of your attention these days?
CB: The wood shop tools have my attention at the moment. As students are not using the tools, it’s a great time for me to do maintenance. The planer blades need to be sharpened, bearing checked, and the gearbox greased, so I plan to start there.
JM: If you needed to find a through line that runs through all of your work during the summer, in your online and in-person classes, and in your role as shop manager and I-Lab engineer, what would it be? What is your mission as a member of the I-Lab team?
CB: The first line of the Seikilos epitaph runs through everything I do, “While you live, shine.”
I try to live up to this verse, whether making toys with summer camp students or reconfiguring the shop to have a more conducive work flow. I know that how I choose to shine my light affects our community.
As a shop manager, my mission is to ensure the I-Lab faculty and students have machinery that operates efficiently within a space that is well stocked with materials that are organized to be easily located when necessary.
As a faculty member, my mission is to create curricula that builds off what Michelle Grau taught her students the previous year, while also providing stepping stones for their next year. I also try to make what I do fun for students.
JM: What is something you are looking forward to for 2021?
CB: I am looking forward to an off-road trip—we are planning to do the Great Western trail running from Canada to Mexico. We have been outfitting our Jeep to make it through the tough spots, so it will be exciting to tackle the trail.
Once COVID has diminished, I look forward to getting together with family and friends, and traveling again!