How Not to Make a Catapult

With a soaring twenty-foot throwing arm, a hulking wooden frame, and three hundred pounds of sand hanging pendulously in its belly, our catapult made for an impressive school project. Mike and I had been working for weeks, but despite the machine’s fearsome appearance there was still plenty of work to be done. The latch that released the projectile was in particular giving us no end of trouble, alternately flinging its payload into the ground at our feet or sending us scampering for cover as potatoes and cantaloupes rained down from above. We put in countless afterschool afternoons and no small amount of engineering effort, but in the end were defeated.

Where had we gone wrong?  Continue reading

Why My Daughter Will Study Computer Science

Let’s say you’ve got a great idea. How do you make something of it?

Chances are, that idea is a few words on a page, or a vague concept with a lot of promise. It needs refining, and clarifying, and improvement. It probably needs some feedback, and it definitely needs money. In short, it needs a lot of work.

The best way to get all of that done is through prototyping. This isn’t a new idea (look for 20.5M+ Google hits), but it’s surprisingly hard to do. Our ideas are precious, and we want to shelter them and improve them until they’re ready to face the harsh light of reality and the cold critiques of our peers. Unfortunately, it turns out that this is exactly the wrong way to go about doing it. Innovators might do well abide to by the slogan “prototype early and often.”

The intuition is that physical prototypes simultaneously reveal the weaknesses and gaps in our thinking while also effectively communicating the idea to others for feedback and extension. Building on that, it’s no surprise that the most effective prototyping is quick and dirty; the drawers at Stanford’s design school are brimming with post-it notes, pipe cleaners, and modeling clay. The emphasis is to convey the idea simply and inexpensively, but not for the reason you might expect. Continue reading