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Co-invention projects in elementary school engage pupils in complex, open-ended design tasks in a practical, hands-on way. Physical materials are an intrinsic part of design, involving trasformation of conceptual ideas into material forms, such as prototypes. These tangible objects mediate embodied thinking and act as material-social mediators of knowledge creation processes. However, the material properties of the designed artifact and pupils’ varying skills and levels of material knowledge constrain the design process.
While previous studies of materiality in design have mainly focused on adults, this study aims to analyze and describe the different roles of material prototyping in an elementary school collaborative design process. A co-invention process was conducted in a Finnish elementary school during spring 2017, with the task of designing solutions for everyday problems. The data consisted of six video recorded design sessions, where small teams of 5th graders prototyped their inventions. We analyzed the video data across macro-, intermediate-, and micro-levels.
The results revealed that pupils used prototypes as mediators for ideation and collaboration. They tested their ideas with prototyping, and material manipulation occurred during collaborative ideation. Material representations supported the verbalization and demonstration of ideas. Some challenges also emerged; prototype construction was a slow and laborious process, the division of labor tended to be unevenly distributed, and the model took a dominant role over the designed artifact. We conclude that support from the teacher and the learning environment is critical for utilizing the full potential of material manipulation in an elementary school setting.