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Talk about cleaning up your act.

With a long-term goal of generating minimal waste while crafting useful prototypes, students in the University of Minnesota's College of Design recently began swapping different substances — namely, glycerin and clay — for the less earth-friendly but popular high-density polyurethane foam (HDPU).

While the latter is considered an industry standard for prototyping and model-making, polyurethane foam doesn't degrade, instead disintegrating into an abrasive dust that requires excellent ventilation for safe air quality.

On the other hand, "glycerin and clay are infinitely reusable," said Anna Marie Mitchell, one of nearly three dozen undergraduate product design students enrolled in instructor Jason Quick's Product Design Studio 2 classes this spring.

Annie Henly, a fabrication technician in the College of Design's fabrication shop, also supports recyclable substitutions.

The high-density foam, Henly said, "is an amazing material but it goes straight to the landfill. And with students working remotely during the pandemic, we didn't want them hot-melting pink foam in their dorm rooms and getting headaches because they lacked proper venting to remove the fumes."

Enter the creative minds of Henly and fabrication director Molly Sanford. They set out to identify better options for Quick's product design students to use in their mock-ups this semester, as well as in future design assignments.

"This is what I'd call a harmonica-sized project — a bit smaller than average," said Quick, explaining that the students were tasked with creating models to improve on a real-world, everyday element — window latches — at the behest of corporate sponsor Andersen Windows.

Past projects Quick has assigned to students at a similar level have included gardening hand tools, can openers, handheld vacuums — even nail salon buffers.

"With my 'granola side,' I want to be as ecologically minded as possible," Quick said.

To that earthy end, Henly and her fellow fabrication team members have also been experimenting with mycelium, the vegetative part of a mushroom.

"It's grown from the roots of mushrooms, and our initial experiments have shown that once it's grown in bricks, it can be dried out and carved or sanded like white foam," said Henly.

Soapy success

For their semester-capping project, Studio 2 students had three weeks to move their concepts from a sketch pad to a physical model to a final presentation that was virtually shared. It was also critiqued at least twice along the way in three- to five-minute presentations, with both Quick and Andersen Windows design engineering staff.

Quick said the students were motivated not just by the design challenge, but also by the "real-world client."

Liam Arbeiter, a second-year product design major from Maple Grove, gave the glycerin a go when tackling his window latch prototype.

"The blocks of clay and glycerin are about the size of a fist, maybe around 3 by 5 by 5 inches," said Arbeiter.

"You can heat the clay so it's a little more malleable, and the glycerin feels like holding a wax candle. It leaves a slight film on your hands, but you can easily wash it off because it's really just soap."

Although Arbeiter said he used polyurethane foam in first-semester projects, he's all for working with alternatives when feasible.

"I'm passionate about finding more sustainable and earth-friendly materials for this type of modeling because environmentally sustainable end-products are what we're working toward and what are needed," said Arbeiter.

"We definitely want to hone our skills and use materials that are more environmentally friendly if we can."

Step-by-step progress

In the fabrication department located within Rapson Hall on the U's East Bank, Henly and Sanford do their utmost to supply design students with the materials they need to advance their studies while also minimizing waste.

"We try to use every item to its maximum capacity and only throw things away that are too small to be useful or laser-cut," said Henly.

"And when we have small piles of solid wood scraps, we let people take them home to use as kindling for fires."

Mitchell, a student employee in the fabrication department, admires staff efforts she's seen firsthand.

"I've been pleasantly surprised with the amenities available to students, and with the opportunities they give us to experiment with different materials and processes. It's a really encouraging learning environment."

That's vital because Mitchell, Arbeiter and their product design peers represent the future generation of designers responsible for creating the everyday items most people take for granted.

"Over the years, I've described product design — sometimes known as industrial design — as a combination of art, engineering and ergonomics," said Quick. "For example, we put the finger grips in your steering wheel."

Quick says some product design students find their way to the major after starting out as engineering candidates. Either way, a background rich in math, physics and art is helpful, and possibly requisite, for successful product designers.

Arbeiter is a prime example.

"I started my first year wanting to do material science and engineering," said Arbeiter. "But toward the end of the spring semester, it wasn't really cutting it for me because I was missing the creative outlet, connections and teamwork.

"I met with a career counselor and found product design, and I'm blessed because it allows me to exercise my creativity within an engineering-based program that involves a lot of prototyping and 3-D modeling like [computer-aided design]."

Arbeiter particularly enjoyed the student/corporate adviser interaction during his glycerin-modeling window lock-and-latch project. He and his peers made their final presentations May 3.

"In product design, it can be a little hard at first to get used to the critiques and feedback," Arbeiter said. "Now I've moved totally to the opposite side, like 'Please tell me everything you think about it,' because I want to know if something won't work."

Mitchell, who expects to intern this summer at 3M, concurs.

"Product/industry design is a very dynamic industry," said Mitchell. "You may spend several months doing deep dives into one specific problem or product category and then move on to something new.

"There's so much potential for creativity and collaboration."

And, Quick and Henly said, more potential for ecological responsibility — even if that means starting out with small steps during the heart of the educational process.

"Product designers try to find solutions for real-world problems and help companies reach new markets, and we're trying to educate students to work toward those ends," said Quick.

Henly is aspirational when it comes to envisioning less wasteful educational components. "These students are the designers of our future, and we have the responsibility to teach them about materials that are healthier both for them and for the environment," she said.

By introducing glycerin, clay and, yes, even mushrooms, Henly said, "we're exposing them to new ways of making things that could transform their ideas about design itself — and we're trying to stop the cycle of waste."

Jane Turpin Moore is a freelance writer based in Northfield.