Ignite: From a Spark to a Flame

By: Rachel Neha Shaw

Ignite originated from a group of about twenty Duke undergrads in Dr. Nimmi Ramanujam’s BME 290 (now BME 230) class that studied and learned the practical applications of human-centered design. These undergrads formed a student-led effort to create a self-sustaining educational system, first in India and later in Kenya, to teach math, engineering, and english concepts. Four of these students ultimately branched out to implement a human-centered design course which culminated with the original flashlight program that has yielded the Ignite that we see today.

As Ignite grew, both globally and in the local Durham area, Kimberly Breen and Dr. Megan Madonna wanted to focus on local needs, while still connecting all of their work and outreach to generating a global impact. Kim added that they “want to help the next generation of engineers and scientists become global citizens and to think about their impact with what they make.”

“We want to help the next generation of engineers and scientists become global citizens and to think about their impact with what they make.”
-Kim Breen, Ignite Program Coordinator

While Ignite was originally created for people in areas of need to make sustainable solutions, young students in the local area also needed and could use human-centered design lessons in tinkering and critical thinking. The hands-on activities offered through Ignite’s curriculum would provide the next generation with essential skills for entering higher education and making an impact through design.

Thus, Ignite began to take on a new direction from its origin in terms of expansion and instruction, adding curriculum, instructors, involved universities, and countries. There are now 100 trained and implemented Ignite instructors, coming from Duke University, Emory University, University of Michigan within the US and the NGO FUNDÁGUA, founded by former GWHT, Duke undergraduate, Gabriela Asturias Ruiz, the Universidad de Valle de Guatemala, the American School of Guatemala and the NGO “Asociación Amigos del Lago de Atitlán.” Furthermore, Ignite has added a water curriculum and a health curriculum to its repertoire, alongside the steady flashlight curriculum. Each course of learning works toward a distinct goal. The light curriculum teaches basic electrical engineering concepts that allow students to create a light source befitting the needs of their community, the water curriculum teaches students how to measure and visualize water contamination as they build a water purification device, and the health curriculum teaches students to build a health kit for a person or community of their choice as they learn about pathogens and disease spread.

While each curriculum follows a general structure, Ignite tailors its instruction to the specific needs of every community it works with, implementing human-centered design in its most essential form. To Megan, this synthesis of well-fitted instruction “comes from community engagement”, emphasizing that “tailoring the curriculum to a certain human need is how it is created, less so about which curriculum to teach and more about how to teach the courses needed for the community.”

Although Ignite has expanded to this extent, its purpose of teaching human-centered design has not wavered. The process of generating solutions based on the needs of a specific individual or group remains the same; the only change, according to Kim and Megan, is the method of sourcing materials for each area, given that they possess varying resources as Ignite grows its reach globally. “Asking what the place has available to create prototypes, that’s where the difference lies,” says Kim.

In Durham, Ignite is currently hard at work putting on a special Summer Tinkering Experience for middle grade learners at the Museum of Life and Science. These students will tinker along the light curriculum, learning about sustainable energy solutions and human-centered design principles while creating their own flashlight. Megan and Kim hope that students will walk away from this event with a clearer understanding of what engineering is and what the field can be used for in terms of its human impact. Megan says, “Human-centered design in engineering shows kids that they can use engineering to directly help people through focused motivation and goals.” Ignite hopes that students leave knowing that this practical use of science and math to help people is an option, and Megan and Kim are excited for students to see and be fascinated by designing something for themselves, by themselves.

Kim Breen & Summer Tinkering Experience Students

Ignite believes that, especially with young students, teaching foundational engineering principles in the context of global impact and climate change through the summer tinkering experience is of the utmost importance as “it makes engineering more approachable and allows them to rethink the way they think of solutions in engineering,” Kim says. With human-centered design, understanding the creative aspect of building and engineering works in tandem with going to the end user, seeing what they need, and tailoring the design to suit that person’s needs. Kim also stressed the importance of “connecting social justice with STEM and empowering students to use STEM for social justice” as a result of centering building and design around the humans impacted by the engineered product.

Ignite’s objectives in human-centered design reach beyond meeting the needs of a community. The organization keeps global goals in mind, as well, with each project striving toward the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs). At Ignite’s onset, the founders, as well as Kim and Megan, viewed the SDGs as a clear way to see the issues everyone needed to work on, so the SDGs became a unifying theme that could be seen across every stage of implementation. According to Kim, “intrinsically tying work to the SDGs gives students a tangible source of information to see an exact problem to work towards solving.” Megan added, “It is nice to know that the problems people experience are shared; knowing that what you’re working on is directly for you and your community but also for the world around you. The SDGs look different in each community but are a reassuring shared objective.”

“It is nice to know that the problems people experience are shared; knowing that what you’re working on is directly for you and your community but also for the world around you. The SDGs look different in each community but are a reassuring shared objective.” -Dr. Megan Madonna, Ignite Program Director

The Human-Centered Design (HCD) Model

Over the course of this past year, the pandemic threw quite the curveball at Ignite, but the program adapted its solutions and used this time to refocus in preparation for long term goals and new developments. Ignite instructors were able to create a lot of virtual content to build a more flexible, robust platform; it has given them time and space to think about how they best want to move forward post-pandemic. Megan and Kim were also able to tailor prototypes to make at-home versions in order to provide hands-on education from anywhere. Virtual content can now be used for training and onboarding instructors, and as we come out of the pandemic, Ignite plans to start with their feet on the ground. They’re implementing soon and hoping to gauge what the community feels about an education program rollout like the upcoming summer tinkering experience.

As Ignite has looked to the future and continues to grow, Megan and Kim are interested in expanding the curriculum across more engineering disciplines. Currently, light curriculum teaches electrical, water teaches civil, and health teaches some fluid/chemical engineering, so a mechanical type or a biomedical engineering type (such as contextualizing complex health concerns, such as cancer, for younger learners) can effectively tie in the different engineering career trajectories for students to envision themselves in these roles. This may look like tailoring more curriculum towards specific engineering fields (majors, careers) to allow students to begin to see themselves in these positions, just as many students are able to view themselves as future politicians, teachers, or doctors, for example.

Ignite has progressed immensely since its inception; its impact, both locally and globally, continues to grow and reach new heights. If you are interested in the work in STEM education and human-centered development that Ignite is doing, Megan and Kim recommend the following: First, email Ignite! They also encourage anyone interested to form connections with others and seek out collaborative effort, as doing so is integral to human-centered design. Be open to being uncomfortable, and push yourself out of your comfort zone in order to create solutions. The problem/solution process is messy, so don’t be afraid to get messy as well! They also emphasize that anyone can be an engineer; you don’t have to be an engineering major. Instructors/trainers at Ignite come from all backgrounds and disciplines, and anyone can be involved in advancing global sustainability through human-centered design and education if they are willing to forge human connections and get out of their comfort zone to get there.