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The case of the disappearing dishes

Students serve up crafty solutions in Wintersession "jDesign" workshop at SEAS

By Kate Hammer, Office for Sustainability

SLIDESHOW: Students participating in the jDesign workshop this January worked together to understand why dishware goes missing from the dining halls and what can be done about it. (Photos by Eliza Grinnell, SEAS Communications.)

In the rush between classes, practices, and other time-demanding activities, many students grab meals on the run from Harvard’s dining halls, taking with them reusable plates, cups, and silverware from undergraduate dining halls. Unfortunately, much of that dinnerware—from September to mid-November last year, more than 3,000 plates, 4,600 teaspoons, and 2,800 glasses—goes unreturned and unlocated, creating an environmental and financial impact for the University.

Describing it as an “unnecessary sustainability challenge,” a diverse group of engineering students decided to tackle the problem during January’s Wintersession.

The six undergraduate and graduate students were taking part in jDesign, a four-day, hands-on workshop, hosted by the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Teaching Labs at SEAS. The workshop’s focus was to harness student energy and creativity to tackle real-world design problems. Harvard’s Office for Sustainability (OFS) and Harvard University Dining Services (HUDS) identified this year’s challenge and served as the students’ clients.

“One key component to jDesign is having a real client and not just a textbook problem,” said SEAS senior preceptor Daniela Faas. “We were very excited to work with the Office for Sustainability to attack the problem of disappearing dishes.

“Because of the complexity of this issue, participants really had to pay attention to the values and culture of Harvard. Real design requires real needs, and real clients and users; jDesign allows us to bring all of those together and have fun with it,” Faas explained.

To address the issue of missing dishware, the students first heard from Kelsey Grab, residential program coordinator for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Green Program, OFS, and Crista Martin, director for marketing and communications, HUDS. Grab and Martin stressed the significance of the problem, noting that the dollars spent replacing these reusable resources each year not only increase Harvard’s purchasing footprint, but take money away from HUDS’ food budget. Students also had the chance to visit Harvard’s dining halls and speak with staff members. Faas then broke up the students into two teams and asked them to approach the problem using the four phases of the design process: investigate; ideate; prototype; and test and redesign.

SEAS graduate student Andrew Wong said he enjoyed the fact that they were working on a practical and tangible project. “There were a lot of different avenues for pursuing solutions, as was evidenced by the resultin­­­­g work,” said Wong. “I also really enjoyed the opportunity to work with the undergraduate students, something I don’t get to do a lot, but would love to do more of in the future.”

Over the next four days, the student teams brainstormed questions, organized their thoughts, and formed problem statements. One group decided that students do not feel accountable for taking dishes or are not aware of the impact, and need to feel connection or motivation for returning dishes. Another group suggested that more comprehensive data on missing dishes is needed to begin to understand the complex issue. The creative process was palpable as the students stuck up dozens of Post-it notes, sketches, and lists of pros and cons around the Teaching Labs’ transparent glass walls.

“Having the opportunity to work with these students on an on-campus sustainability issue was incredibly rewarding and inspiring,” said Grab. “The Office for Sustainability aims to help incubate innovation and mobilize students to transform ideas into action. JDesign is the perfect example of how we are using the campus as a ‘Living Lab’ to solve real sustainability challenges.”

In order to get groups thinking outside the box and without limitations, jDesign mentors encouraged the students to imagine they had magical powers or were designing something for the Middle Ages. The creative solutions ranged from releasing mice in dorm rooms where dish collections had built up to sending a dog around to collect dishes (in exchange, the students could pet the dish-collecting dog). Though these outlandish suggestions were never destined for reality, they helped push the students’ ideas further, leading to more discussion, and ultimately practical solutions.­­

“HUDS loves to share real-world challenges and see how our community applies its diverse perspectives to develop viable solutions,” said Martin. “That’s what so remarkable: The solutions are really considered and reflect the unique nuances of Harvard.”

On the final day of the workshop, it was evident that the students not only had listened to and absorbed the information from the clients, but had thoughtfully weighed a wide range of possible solutions to arrive at the most beneficial.

The first group focused on awareness and accountability by proposing a campaign-style solution. The team suggested feeding a new set of printed dishes into the dining hall rotation as more and more dishes are lost. The new dishes would have statements explaining the environmental and financial impact of each dish, and encouraging students to not be a part of the problem. They noted that this style would encourage dialogue, adding to the sense of community in each House.

The second group examined the persona of a “dish thief,” and focused their project around data collection. Their proposal included a QR code—a small grid encoded with data that can be scanned and used as a tagging system for all plates—and a webcam that would incorporate facial recognition. Each time a diner grabbed a plate from their dining hall, the system would scan the plate and take a picture of the student’s face. In the long run, the group’s solution promised more data on where the dishes ended up, thanks to an easy internal audit system, and an opportunity to track habitual offenders and understand their reasons for taking the dishware.

After she presented her team’s solution, Dominique Voso ’17 said she thought the program was a great way to learn about engineering design for a problem that she encounters daily.

“When the Office for Sustainability and HUDS first explained the dish issue, I was shocked by the sheer number of dishware taken,” explained Voso. “I think that many other students are the same, in that they don’t understand the size and importance of this issue. It was definitely eye-opening to collaborate with these two on-campus departments and try to craft a way to promote sustainability on campus.”

To learn more about green efforts at Harvard, visit the Office for Sustainability.