One College of Business course is teaching students how to problem solve with the help of a classic modeling clay

December 3, 2018

Students in ENT 400 engage in a rapid prototyping exercise to create, receive feedback and immediately modify their products.

ENT 400 Play-Doh exercise
ENT 400 Play-Doh exercise
Students in the College of Business course Entrepreneurial Thinking and Behavior create product prototypes out of Play-Doh.

A childhood toy helped students find solutions for today in one entrepreneurship course.

The ENT 400: Entrepreneurial Thinking and Behavior course began with a discussion on deliverables and creative thinking — and then iLabs Director Tim Davis opened a large box filled with yellow cylinder containers.

“Who doesn’t like Play-Doh?” Davis asked while passing out the brightly colored modeling compound. “Today we are going to do what we talk so much about — taking a problem and finding a solution. And then, based on feedback from the class, making your prototype, made from this Play-Doh, even better.”

Davis gave the students a real problem they all had to solve: how to get the great horned owl to quit dive-bombing people in a popular recreational area. Basically, what co-existence solutions do students have?

“People don’t buy products. They buy solutions to the problems they have. This rapid prototyping exercise is a way to create and then, based on feedback, immediately modify,” said Davis, whose inspiration came from a Bradley University lesson by Eden Blair. “This shows the importance of showing a prototype, even in rough form, to a potential customer because it allows for additional insight that could improve your product.”

At first some of the students looked quizzically at both the Play-Doh and the scenario, which was actually pulled from a 2018 headline.

But as they began to roll the dough between their hands and bounce ideas off of their teammates, the silence dissipated and the buzz of conversation filled the room as a variety of owl-deterring helmets literally took shape.

After each group was done, one representative from each pitched their Play-Doh project — which ranged from having reflectors to ward off the nocturnal creatures to a fashionable faux owl-feathered outfit to blend in — and was critiqued or tested by their classmates. Acting as the potential customers, the class provided three areas they liked and three areas that needed improvement.

Using that feedback, groups had a second round to improve their idea and re-pitch to the class.

“Did you notice that on the first round your groups wanted the product to be so amazing — with Bluetooth, capes and disco balls — and once you get the feedback, you see how those bells and whistles may not actually be part of a viable solution?” Davis asked the class. “That’s when you focus in on what you are there to do — problem solve with the consumer in mind.”

Senior Cortney Marschner said the activity was something she’ll now use when quickly working on an idea.

“I’m pretty sure there won’t be owl helmets in my future, but this exercise may be. It’s a quick way that I can try something out and actually get a helpful critique before going too far down the road,” said Marschner, an engineering major.

And that’s the point, according to Davis.

It’s about rolling up your sleeves, and some Doh, and seeing how engaged teammates and openness to criticism helps you come up with something a bit better and often more simplified.

“Learning, representing assumptions and then testing assumptions — all things done in this exercise — can be used across a variety of fields and in a variety of settings,” Davis said. “Everyone needs problem solvers. That’s what entrepreneurship is and that is what we are doing here today — creatively solving problems.”

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