Generative LCA for 5th graders

This time last year I did a workshop with the 5th graders at Fall Creek Elementary on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in the context of toy design. LCA is a tool used by sustainability engineers to assess the impacts of industrial products, services, and systems on the environment and on people. Even though I don’t normally work with kids, I love working with this bunch. It’s such a great exercise to prepare content for 5th graders. It forces me to be clear and to get to the point!

Last year I started the workshop with a belief I have: I believe that kids can make better toys than the ones they can buy in stores.

I made three discoveries during this workshop that confirmed my belief. I’ll list them here, then flesh them out below:

1. All of the students picked up LCA quickly

2. At least half of the students knew what a 3D printer was

3. One of the students made an amazing insight about USE phase of LCA

1. INTUITING LCA.  To teach LCA to this group, I held up a plastic french fries toy and asked “How did this come to be in the world?” Their answers sounded a lot like the phases of LCA: Design, Pre-production, Manufacturing, Sales, Distribution, Use, Durability, End-of-Life (EOL). Of course I had to give them prompts every once in a while, but overall, it came from them intuitively. All they needed was to be asked the right question.

2. 3D PRINTERS. You may wonder what 3D printers have to do with kids making toys. Well, up until very recently, if you wanted to manufacture something, you needed millions of dollars and connections to all kinds of equipment and services that were hard to access. Plus, even if you made something, you had no way of selling or distributing it to the people who wanted it. Enter the desktop manufacturing revolution. Today kids have access to the tools of production and distribution. And many of them know it. They expect to be able to come up with an idea on the computer and manufacture it on a machine in their garage, online service bureau, or local maker space. So not only can kids come up with better ideas for toys, they can actually manufacture and sell them. Incredible.

3. USE PHASE of LCA. So the use phase of LCA looks at the energy or resources that a product uses while in the hands of the consumer. A great example is a washing machine. If you are assessing a washing machine, yes, all of the other phases of LCA are important, but “use” is huge because the machine is used daily for many years. Thus, we want to know how much energy and water is used in each wash. But with a plastic french fries toy, it’s hard to assess the use phase. Except for one student who said, “What about the message that the toy conveys while in the hands of the user?” I almost fell over. Yes, plastic french fries promote values about nutrition, don’t they? The values that an object conveys while in use is huge and I’m going to cover this explicitly in this upcoming workshop.

All of that said, when I asked them to come up with an idea for a new toy using at least one phase of LCA as inspiration, that connection didn’t happen for a lot of them (at least not during the 50 minute session I was working with them). And I get that, it’s a lot to synthesize in a short amount of time. So this year I might prepare a pair of worksheets to help them synthesize more quickly. One worksheet for the plastic french fries (the before) and another worksheet for their toy invention (the after). I’ll ask them to highlight the LCA phases they took inspiration from on the “after” worksheet. A lot to pack in to a 50 minute session. But they are young and full of creativity. I think they’ll do great.


LCA on

online 3D printing service

Marketing fast food to kids


The Value of Play


I just finished teaching a toy design course at Ithaca Youth Bureau. The class was small, just three boys, so I decided to teach it as an open studio. We started off with a discussion on “What is Good Design?” From there I gave the boys materials and they started making stuff. Several times throughout the course I would ask them, “What are you working on?” And more often than not their response was, “I don’t know.” I love this response. They were so willing to just play and see where that took them. I begged them, “Please don’t forget how to work this way. School will try to beat it out of you but don’t let that happen.” They looked at me like I was a little looney, then went right back to work.

At times they would get stuck with something they were working on and I was there to help them trouble shoot. For example, they were making axels for cars with BBQ skewers, paper straws, and plastic milk bottle caps for wheels. One day one of the students was working with honey bottle caps instead of milk caps and the honey caps had large holes in the centers. The student said, “I don’t know what to do. The holes are too large for the skewers.” But just the day before this student had been experimenting with making bundles of skewers. I pointed to his experiment and asked, “Would something like this work?” He said, ” I think they will.” Then a minute later he said, “The bundled skewers are too big for the straws.”  I pointed to some card stock and tape and said, “Could you make a wide straw with these materials?” I showed him how to work with the grain of the paper and a few minutes later he had a working axel for the honey caps.

On the last day of the class this same student said, “I think next time we could make all of these toys in one  week instead of two.” I smiled and told him that that was a good idea. But I wonder if he’s right or if it’s just that he now has the confidence to make a lot of toys in a short amount of time. Either way, I’m glad he wants to make more toys!

Make Better Toys


Last week I facilitated a discussion with two classes of fifth graders at Fall Creek Elementary in Ithaca about the social and environmental impacts of toys. We used a tool called “LCA” which stands for Life Cycle Assessment. It’s a tool that designers can use to understand the social and environmental impacts of manufactured goods. It’s an important tool for designers because unlike the one-of-a-kind pieces that artists make, designers make stuff that gets reproduced in batches of 100,000. Manufactured goods have exponential impacts on the planet and people.

LCA identifies seven phases of a product’s life cycle: 1. design, 2. pre-production, 3. manufacturing, 4. distribution and sales, 5. use, 6. durability, and 7. end-of-life. The fifth graders totally got it and surprised me with their insights. For example, they were concerned about the values that the toy pictured above promoted in the USE phase of its life cycle. That was deep!

After our LCA discussion, I gave them some guidelines for brainstorming then challenged them to come up with ideas for better toys than the plastic french fries we assessed. No problemo!

Sustainable Toy Design for ages 5-6


For the past 10 weeks I’ve been collaborating with Xraise Lab for Science Outreach and the Ithaca Generator to offer toy-design workshops to kindergardeners and first graders in the GIAC after school program. Creating projects for kids that demonstrate concepts like “design-for-disassembly” has been fun. Kids this age understand and are frustrated with “closed” design because they have all had toys break on them that they haven’t been able to fix. But after building their own toys in this program, they seem to appreciate “repairability” as a design feature. Pretty cool!

More pics at the Ithaca Generator website