By Declan Halloran
This summer, I participated in a camp with the Minnetonka Public Schools’ VANTAGE program, which is usually for high-schoolers to get a taste of the corporate world. Fortunately for me, they opened up a new week-long camp solely for middle schoolers this year, to see how we would enjoy the work that high-schoolers do with companies. The camp took place at the VANTAGE headquarters, a corporate space that encouraged creative thinking, with walls that you could write on, and assorted materials for prototyping.
The week started out with an introduction to the design thinking process (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test), and a warm-up on the process itself. Our first challenge was to redesign the first day of school. We got into groups of two and started our interviews.
The person that I interviewed had a rough first day of school, and was feeling excited at first, but soon grew tired from all of the new social experiences and struggled to stay engaged while doing “ice-breakers.” He was an introvert (empathize), and the problem I needed to solve was providing a break from all of the new social activities (define). Then, I started, as fast as I could, to think of all the different products that could solve his problem (ideate), like noise-canceling headphones, a journal, a breathing app, fidgets.
After thinking over what would be the best for solving his problem, I decided to converge two of the ideas, the journal and the fidget, to create a multipurpose product. This product was a piece of paper (that would be sold in a pad of a hundred or so), with a journal on the front side, asking you to evaluate how you are feeling today, with places to draw, and places to write (prototype). The opposite side had instructions for origami, acting as a quiet fidget that could be used in school. After doing the journal, you use the paper to do origami, calming you down and giving you a momentary break. Next, I interviewed him to see if he would actually use the product (test). The product was a success, but this was just the warm-up.
The “Bug” Wall
After lunch, we all put Post-its on a “bug wall,” to see what annoyed all of us. Based on those Post-it notes on the wall, we split into groups of two to five, to start thinking about our big project. My group ended up deciding that we were going to work with solar panels in some way, as our “bug” was how inefficient and how expensive solar panels were.
To start off, we began to think about who the users of our product might be. Homeowners, and corporate business owners were among the top users, and we used that to make this question. How might we make solar energy more appealing to use as their energy source? That night, we did interviews with our neighbors and parents to investigate why they, as homeowners, do not have solar panels, and also to see why they would want them. The general consensus was that solar panels were just too expensive, and they don’t pay off themselves fast enough. Others didn’t like the way that the solar panels looked, and didn’t think that they were aesthetically pleasing. So we decided to find a way to make solar panels more efficient, and also cheaper.
Next, we interviewed a solar panel installer to get his input. He told us that there are many benefits to having solar panels, including a 30 percent tax break from the IRS, and the Xcel Energy Solar Rewards program. We also learned that, by 2022, the solar rewards program would be closed, so right now would be a great time to invest in solar panels. He explained more about the cost behind solar panels, the mechanism that goes into making them, and most importantly, their efficiency. We knew, of course, that they became less efficient when it was cloudy, but we were surprised to learn that depending on the quality of the solar panels, the efficiency can go down 0.5 to 2 percent every year.
After hearing this, we wanted a way for the solar panel to stay efficient, no matter what the weather, so our end question changed to this. How might we make an energy efficient solar panel that works in different weather conditions? After coming up with a new “how might we” statement, we started to ideate. We thought about products that incorporated different types of clean energy, until we came upon our idea for prototype “A.”
Product 2: A Better Solar Panel
This idea was a solar panel, at about a 10-degree incline, with mirrors surrounding it, to refract and use more of the light, and most importantly, two drainage holes at the bottom of one end. These drainage holes funneled into a pipe with a turbine in it, to capture the hydropower. This collection of the energy from the runoff added onto the solar panel makes it a panel that can capture energy in multiple different weather conditions. Also, on this panel, there is a voltage meter, similar to a hybrid car, so that you can switch between hydropower and solar power.
After prototyping this idea, and making various improvements, we started to work on our logo. We started by thinking about different symbols that represent clean energy, hydropower, and sustainability. Leaves, sun, water droplets, and combinations of all of those crossed our minds, but after trying out multiple of these ideas, we settled on a logo with just words. After deciding on a simple, text logo, we started to think about roots and words from different languages that could be used to symbolize these types of clean energy, as well as sustainability. After thinking about many different combinations of roots, we stumbled upon eau, the French word for water. We decided to combine this with the Greek word helio, meaning sun, to make “helieau.” This then turned into a company name, Helieau + Suns. Once the logo was complete, we put together a slide deck to get ready for the next day’s pitch at Target headquarters in Minneapolis.
Pitching at Target Corp. Headquarters
We took a bus to Target Headquarters (after a quick stop for lunch at some food trucks), and were greeted by Eric Timba, the head of design for menswear at Target. He took us to a conference room, where some of his colleagues who worked on the Target app gave us a brief introduction to the “behind-the-scenes” of the app and the drive-up program. After this presentation, the groups started to give their pitches. The responses to our pitches were all positive, and gave us insight into how to further market our products. One of them even said, “Congratulations, you’re all going to be millionaires!”
After all of the pitches were finished, they took us across the skyway to the other side of Target, to meet the team from Cat & Jack, the Target kids clothing line. This portion of the Cat & Jack team worked on custom clothes for special needs kids. They talked to us about their experience meeting special needs kids, and helping them. The way that they helped them was to make custom clothes that had spaces for feeding tubes, or that were easier to put on in a wheelchair, all while still looking like regular clothes.
(Almost) Ready for the Corporate World
On the last day, two high-schoolers who had recently participated in the VANTAGE program came in to talk about their experience with the program, to give presenting tips, and to give feedback on our pitches. After they gave us feedback, we went back to improving our prototypes, and also to make a social media post to promote our product. After all the improving was finished, we ended the camp with a bang by pitching our products to the parents.
In conclusion, this camp gave me a taste of the corporate world, and taught me how to collaborate in a group, how to prototype, how to grab people’s attention to promote your product, and much more.