Re-teaching Composting – Portfolio

In Portfolio - IDP 116-16 by Lisa FeidenLeave a Comment

IDP 116 Portfolio: Re-teaching Composting

Portfolio by Bethany Claps, Lisa Feiden, Eliana Gevelber, and Lucy Kneissler



This week, the goal of IDP 116: Introduction to Design Thinking has been to learn about and apply the design thinking process to developing a learning technology. The ideologies behind design thinking place an emphasis on problem framing by empathizing with the user, defining the problem using a point of view statement, ideating creative solutions to the problem, prototyping promising solutions, and testing the prototypes with actual users. Our team has focused on developing a novel way to relay critical information to Smith students regarding composting in order to encourage correct and frequent composting.


After getting to know the class, separating into smaller groups, and identifying potential areas of interest for developing a learning technology, it was necessary to pick a design challenge on which we would focus for the remainder of the class. Unfortunately, this initial task proved to be one of the most significant challenges for the group. As a bunch of relatively easy to please and noncommittal individuals, it was difficult to reach a consensus regarding our topic. After much consideration, it was decided that our choice should be largely based on the accessibility of the project, given the limited timeline we had to complete significant progress. As such, we decided that our topic should allow for a readily observable population within the college. This major constraint lead us to consider learning design challenges related to the college’s dining halls, eventually resulting in our selection of the learning challenge surrounding how to properly compost here at the college.

Upon selection of this challenge, the process of performing observations and interviews was, in theory, quite easy. It was decided that we would perform two rounds of observations: breakfast in the King/Scales Dining Hall and lunch in the Chase/Duckett Dining Hall.

At breakfast time, due to the smaller volume of students coming into the dining hall, there were fewer chances to interview students. The greatest insights of the morning came from the dining hall staff and the facilities personnel, as well as from general observations. An interesting finding was the disparity between the compostability of napkins. In King/Scales, the dining hall staff discouraged composting the napkins because they were of a thicker material and bleached white. Other dining halls, in which there are thinner, brown napkins, students are encouraged to compost napkins. We heard a lot of other opinions from the staff, ranging from the pressing issue of recycling the Chapin Grab-and-Go salad containers, to the futuristic idea of having a communal compost pipeline.

At lunch, we were able to interview students due to the larger volume of potential interviewees in the dining hall. Each interview consisted of the same general questions:

“Do you compost at Smith?”

“Do you compost often?”

“Did you know how to compost before Smith?”

“Do you know what is compostable?”

“Tell us about a time when you did not compost and why you could not compost?”

“Do you know what happens to compost once the bucket is full?”

“Do you know the benefits of composting?”

“What do you believe the motivation for composting?”

“What do you think is the biggest factor in students choosing not to compost?”

Generally, we found that among the interviewees, there was a general knowledge of composting prior to coming to Smith. While these students had composted at home or at their high schools, they were not familiar with the differences in the composting guidelines and process at Smith College. The interviewees also expressed their opinions where they believe the failure to compost was perceived to be caused by a lack of time, information, accessibility, and motivation. Other interviewees noted the lack of compost bins in the houses prevented students from composting food that they bring outside the dining halls. It was also relayed that these students did not know what happened to the compost once it was collected, believing that Smith is not held accountable for its composting and that the compost is not actually used.

After our two mealtime observations, we synthesized our key observations. During this session, we looked for themes and defined our user as a student who dines, who is environmentally aware, and who has previously composted. After consolidating our observations, we started seeing three central barriers to Smithies learning how to compost correctly: lack of time, clear guidelines, and appreciation of the Smith compost lifecycle (See Image 1). As detailed earlier, the students in our morning observation did a great job composting. This outcome could be explained in many ways, one reason being that there was little time pressure which allowed students to pay more attention to where they were dumping their waste. While there are two signs posted by the compost bins at dining halls, they clearly do not communicate nor translate to proper composting practices. To incentivize Smithies to compost, it is crucial to highlight the positive impact it has and where it goes after it leaves the dining halls.

Image 1

Image 1. Three Barriers of Composting

After we found the three key blocks in the compost learning process, we categorized our findings into user, need, and insight (See Image 2). It was tricky but important to differentiate between these three areas; doing so ensured that we shaped our design around the user’s actual needs. The design may be attractive or complicated, but if it does not actually help the user, it is useless. We defined our user as a busy Smithie who was familiar with the compost process. The guideline category captured their need for more information about what could and could not be composted.  The lifecycle category focused on where the dining hall’s food waste ended up and the value of composting in general. Our key insight is that knowledge about the process (aforementioned need) would make students care more about composting.

Image 2

Image 2. User/Need/Insight

From our synthesis of our user, their need, and our subsequent insights, we came up with the following point of view statement:

An environmentally aware student with previous compost knowledge needs more information about Smith’s compost process because they believe “Smith doesn’t actually compost.”

The last segment of our statement may seem sarcastic, however, it was a direct quote from an interviewee and reveals the point where compost education fails in Smith dining halls. With this finding at the core of our mission, we crafted a design challenge:

How might we re-teach students about composting?



After synthesizing our findings, we were able to begin develop product ideas, ranging from the easiest, “low hanging fruit” ideas, to the technologically advanced, and sometimes outlandish, “if there were a breakthrough” ideas. Some of these prototyping concepts included a compost whale that could eat our food waste, larger bins, a festive compost jingle, and a compost monitor. After sorting the ideas by “low hanging fruit”, “most likely to delight”, and “if only we could” ideas, we decided to formally begin prototyping a reusable plasticware container that has valuable information about how to compost and the lifecycle of compost at Smith. This initial prototype of the “informative plasticware” had two visuals with information regarding composting at Smith, a spot for food, and a secondary compartment for compost (See Image 3).


Image 3

Image 3. Base prototypes

This secondary compartment would be underneath the top compartment for food. Once the user had completed their meal, they would remove a sleeve to allow the compost to fall into the secondary compartment. The user could then dispose of the compost using a bottomless drawer to scrape the compost forward and into the bucket. The informational graphics included instructions on what to compost on the top of the plasticware lid (See Image 3).  We condensed the guidelines into frequently mis-composted items to limit the “clutter” of our design.  In order to keep the images as simple as possible, we indicated that, in general, foods could be composted.  We enclosed visual examples of foods in a green circle. Conversely, we indicated non-compostable items, like bones, and “compostable” utensils with a red circle.

On the interior of the top of the plasticware cover was a simple four-part graphic with visual representations of the lifecycle of compost at Smith (See Image 3). This lifecycle visual started with the food served at the college, its transfer into the compost buckets located in each dining hall, its removal to Bridgmont Farm, located in Westhampton, Massachusetts, its eventual reuse in farming, ending with its eventual return to the college as food served in the dining halls to students.

During testing, we received valuable feedback regarding our first design. Some of this feedback centered around the cleanliness of the design. A major concern was the viability of carrying around compost in the lunch box, and continuing to eat new food above the old, ready-to-compost food. Additionally, the tester commented on the lack of information regarding the compost instructions, mainly the omission of the inability to compost tea bags. Finally, the tester suggested we include more information about the lifecycle of compost, outlining the importance of composting, highlighting the fact that its main purpose is for use as soil for future farming.

These insights led us to determine that our prototype was attempting to do too much and that we had lost sight of our original objective: to teach students how to compost and about the larger composting process of which Smith is a part. As such, our final prototype shifted in focus, away from the functionality of the plasticware, to the story of the graphics and the relaying of information.

Our goal with our final iteration was to implement the feedback from our tester, making our visuals digital, compelling, and informative. This involved adding tea bags to the no-compost list and adding more information on the lifecycle of compost (See Image 4). In our final iteration, we did not include the separate compost container within the plasticware due to the “gross factor” and questions of cleanliness expressed by our tester. As such, we shifted focus from the design of our product to the message relayed.

Image 4

Image 4. Final prototype images

We would give this plasticware container to first year students during orientation. It is Smith tradition to give first year students an ivy plant to care for during their time at Smith.  Similarly, this container could be used to carry out leftover food from dining halls during all four years. This could replace Grab n’ Go containers at Chapin and Hubbard, future reducing landfill waste. For future implementation, we would print the visuals directly onto the plasticware.  This would allow the users to wash the containers without the images washing off. Overall, we felt that we met our goals of informing students with previous compost knowledge about Smith’s larger role in composting and the specific Smith College composting guidelines.

Leave a Comment