In a rush between classes, practices, and other activities many students grab meals on the run from Harvard’s dining halls, consequently taking valuable reusable plates, cups, and silverware with them. Unfortunately, those dishes often go unreturned and unfound, creating an unnecessary sustainability challenge for the University. This past fall alone, more than 3,000 plates, 4,600 teaspoons, and 2,800 glasses were lost. As part of this January’s Wintersession, a diverse group of engineering students came together to tackle this problem.

The six undergraduate and graduate students were taking part in jDesign, a four-day hands-on design workshop, hosted by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Teaching Labs at SEAS. The workshop aims to harness student energy and creativity to tackle real-world design problems. Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (OFS) and Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) identified this year’s challenge and served as the students’ clients.

“One key component to jDesign is having a real client and not just a textbook problem. We were very excited to work with the Office for Sustainability to attack the problem of disappearing dishes,” said SEAS Senior Preceptor Daniela Faas. “Because of the complexity of this issue, participants really had to pay attention to the values and culture of Harvard. Real design requires real needs, and real clients and users; jDesign allows us to bring all of those together and have fun with it.”

Credit: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEASCredit: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

To address the issue of missing dishware, the students first had the opportunity to hear from Kelsey Grab, Residential Program Coordinator, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program, OFS, and Crista Martin, Director for Marketing and Communications, HUDS. Grab and Martin stressed the significance of the problem, noting that the dollars spent replacing these reusable resources each year is not only increasing Harvard’s purchasing footprint, but taking money away from HUDS’ food budget. Students next had the chance to visit Harvard’s dining halls and speak with staff members. Fass then broke up the students into two teams and asked them to approach the problem using the four phases of the design process: investigate; ideate; prototype; and test and redesign.

SEAS graduate student Andrew Wong said he enjoyed the fact that they were working on a practical and tangible project. “There were a lot of different avenues for pursuing solutions as was evidenced by the resulting work,” said Wong. “I also really enjoyed the opportunity to work with the undergraduate students, something I don’t get to do a lot, but would love to do more of in the future.”

Over the course of the four-day workshop, the student teams brainstormed questions, organized their thoughts, and formed problem statements. One group decided that students do not feel accountable for taking dishes or are not aware of the impact, and need to feel connection or motivation for returning dishes. Another group suggested that more comprehensive data on missing dishes is needed to begin to understand the complex issue. The creative process was palpable as the students posted dozens of post-it notes, sketches, and lists of pros and cons around the Teaching Labs’ transparent glass walls.

“Having the opportunity to work with these students on an on-campus sustainability issue was incredibly rewarding and inspiring,” said Kelsey Grab. “The Office for Sustainability aims to help incubate innovation and mobilize students to transform ideas into action. JDesign is the perfect example of how we are using the campus as a ‘Living Lab’ to solve real sustainability challenges.”

The Office for Sustainability aims to help incubate innovation and mobilize students to transform ideas into action. JDesign is the perfect example of how we are using the campus as a ‘Living Lab’ to solve real sustainability challenges.

In order to get groups thinking outside the box and without limitations, jDesign mentors encouraged the students to imagine they had magical powers or were designing something for the Middle Ages. The out-of-the-box solutions ranged from releasing mice in dorm rooms with built up dish collections, to sending around a dog to collect dishes, that students could in turn pet. Though these outlandish suggestions were never destined for reality, they helped push the students’ ideas further, leading them to more discussion, and ultimately practical solutions.­­

Credit: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEASCredit: Eliza Grinnell/Harvard SEAS

“HUDS loves to share real-world challenges and see how our community applies its diverse perspectives to develop viable solutions,” said Crista Martin. “That's what so remarkable: the solutions are really considered and reflect the unique nuances of Harvard.”

On the final day of the workshop, it was evident that the students had not only listened to and absorbed the information from the clients, but they had thoughtfully weighed a wide range of possible solutions to arrive at the most beneficial. The first group focused on awareness and accountability by proposing a campaign style solution. The team suggested feeding a new set of printed dishes into the dining hall rotation as more and more dishes are lost. The new dishes would have statements explaining the environmental and financial impact of each dish and encouraging students to not be a part of the problem. They noted that this style would encourage dialogue, adding to the sense of community in each House.

The second group examined the persona of a “dish thief,” and focused their project around data collection. Their proposal included a QR code tagging system for all plates and a web cam that would incorporate facial recognition. Each time a diner grabs a plate from their dining hall, their system would scan their plate and take a picture of their face. In the long run, the group’s solution promised more data on where the dishes end up, thanks to an easy internal audit system, and an opportunity to track habitual offenders, and understand reasons for taking the dishware.

After she presented her team’s solution Dominique Voso, College ’17 said she thought the program was a great way to learn about engineering design for a problem that she encounters daily.

“When the Office for Sustainability and HUDS first explained the dish issue, I was shocked by the sheer number of dishware taken,” explained Voso. “I think that many other students are the same in that they don’t understand the size and importance of this issue. It was definitely eye-opening to collaborate with these two on-campus departments and try to craft a way to promote sustainability on campus.”

It was definitely eye-opening to collaborate with these two on-campus departments and try to craft a way to promote sustainability on campus.

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