Play-dough is not just for kindergarten!

On Friday I had the first group of master engineering students for a morning session on writing their dissertation reports. Now, I am new to this college and the students so I needed a way to understand, how far the students were with their projects and how thought-out the process. Further, I needed an icebreaker.

Design your Research Project in Play-dough

The programme coordinator told me that one of the key issues his students are facing is the ability to communicate their projects effectively. Which lead to me thinking: about the smallest common denominator of aero-space and mechanical engineers … doing stuff! So, how do you do stuff, in a highly intensive session, buying material out of your own pocket? Play-dough! I knew the session would be intensive and I wanted my students to have some fun. Besides, who doesn’t like play-dough?

Okay pedagogical reasoning: 

I’ve said it before: The learning strategies I use are student-centered, guided by the concept of creative learning, which promotes ownership, control and relevance in the learning process, aiming for innovation. Innovation can be as ‘simple’ as applying knowledge in new contexts. Play-dough, is definitely a new context when talking about solar energy, drones, computer games, or intelligent artificial limbs. The exercise draws on the students’ experience, it asks to demonstrate what their research means to them and encourages the students to re-contextualize, think about the language and the symbols used in communication.

Aims for my students:

  • focus on the session
  • take a step back from project and think about it
  • icebreaker
  • talk to classmates

Aims for me:

  • understand where students are with their projects
  • see how well they are presenting
  • getting students to focus on: what it’s all about

The Task

Create your research project in play-dough. Present the project, using your play-dough model, to the rest of the class in one minute.*

I put some guiding questions into the PowerPoint. Suggesting possible focus points.
I put some guiding questions into the PowerPoint. Suggesting possible focus points.

The Implementation

While the students were busy finding a way of showcasing their projects, I observed them. Having been told by colleagues, that the core issue is a lack of communication. I thought. We’ll see. After watching my students for 5 minutes showing incredible skills of flexibility in reaching for different coloured play-dough pieces, one student hogging the blue as if life depended on it, and one trying to figure out where the blue had gone, I began laughing; highlighting to my students that they could ask one-another to make their life easier. One of the students began laughing and told me that engineers are just very competitive.

The students all presented their projects very well and stuck to the one minute instruction. Kudos. And even the most abstract models made sense in the end. The exercise definitely encouraged communication. It helped me to understand where to focus during the rest of the session, and unveil possible problem areas. However, an insight I had not planned to gain from this exercise was to learn how little aware the students were of context. Not only did the students not introduce themselves when beginning their presentation, they also did not name their actual programme, or the title of the project. All jumped right into describing their play-dough models. This provided a good talking point about the significance of context and setting the scene when giving a presentation.


The feedback for the session was very good. One of the points mentioned by every single student was that they liked the interactive aspects of the workshop. Slowly my body of anecdotal evidence shows a strong pattern of success of transitioning creative learning strategies into higher education. The research project I am currently undertaking, even indicates improvement in student marks.

*The one minute pitch is almost like the infamous elevator pitch. If a student is able to present his or her project concisely in one minute, they demonstrate in the least the gist of the project is clear, in the best a comprehensive understanding of their project. It depends on what and how each student relays the information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.