nicaragua _gateway

Left: Jenny Su snorkels in Belize. Right: (L-R) Angela Lin, Billy Bausback, Hailey O’Connor, and Abby Wilkinson in Nicaragua, building a play structure from bamboo.Click above to see more images from Belize and Nicaragua.

About two dozen industrial design students traveled abroad over the winter break to practice solving real-world design problems and draw inspiration from nature.

Adjunct Professor Karen Stone led a group of 11 undergraduate students to Nicaragua to observe the coffee harvesting process and create design ideas related to workers’ farming processes, as well as to other aspects of daily living, such as childcare.

Adjunct Professor Rebecca Welz led 10 students on a snorkeling trip to Belize as part of her course Biomimicry: Design and Nature. Once in Belize, the students met with biologists who gave lectures on mangroves, coral reef systems, and fish; then the students donned masks and fins to explore the underwater world and sea life for themselves.

The idea of biomimicry is that “nature is the best designer,” explains Welz; design can draw on nature’s efficiency and ingenuity, allowing people to design more economical and sustainable products and systems.

“Seeing firsthand the world that is under the surface of the ocean is a way to increase awareness and hone design thinking.”

Welz says students took copious notes and made sketches, and are now working on product prototypes based on their underwater observations.

One student, Gretchen White (M.S. Art and Design Education ’12) describes finding inspiration in “glittering fish moving in and out of towering coral, graceful turtles, fluttering stingrays, alluring conch shells, and fleshy jellyfish.”

Welz says students are now working on product prototypes based on their underwater observations of eels with retractable jaws, sea urchins, and star fish, among other sea creatures.

“We not only had the experience of peering below the surface of the ocean, but of asking ourselves: How does nature do it? What solutions in nature can we learn from?”

In Nicaragua, Stone’s students— members of the Pratt Chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America—focused on what they could design to improve the daily lives of migrant coffee pickers.

The group stayed at the farm and nature preserve Santa Maria de Ostuma, about two hours from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Santa Maria de Ostuma farms shade-grown coffee for a California-based coffee company. The group spent several days observing the coffee-harvesting process then brainstormed several projects, including designing harvest baskets and more ergonomic tools.

Many students on the trip say they were struck by seeing life in the world’s second-poorest country firsthand.

“In the U.S., many people seem to judge quality of life based on the size of a house and the possessions a person owns. In Nicaragua, the people have very little, yet their quality of life is through the roof. After staying on the farm for only a few days, the strong culture and sense of community was extremely apparent,” says Billy Bausback (B.I.D. ’13).

Students say they also witnessed—and drew design inspiration from—the way even small scraps of material are reused.

“I was really excited to learn about how they use and reuse their objects, both those that are made from natural and non‐natural materials,” says Abby Wilkinson (B.I.D. ’11). “The workers on the farm let nothing go to waste. The bags that held the corn flour for tortillas were used to attach the harvest baskets to their bodies and also to carry their clothing from farm to farm during the harvest.”

Over the eight-day trip, students worked on designs that would make food preparation more efficient for the workers, and ones that would give the workers’ children more tools for play.

The group ultimately created play structures out of bamboo growing on the farm, (learning to use machetes to clean the stalks), as well as old tires and rope.

“It was very important to the students that they leave something behind,” says Stone. “The workers’ children often had little to do during the day, so having an outlet for play was important.”

Stone says watching the students learn so much in such a short amount of time was unparalleled.

“Having the opportunity to lead a group of students, take them out of their comfort zone where they are working so hard to become designers, and taking them to a new place was amazing. They really learned that you have to understand a lot about the world around you, the culture and the environment of the place, to be a good designer.”

Photos: I-Chao Wang (Belize), Karen Stone (Nicaragua)