Elon professor turns 'first world problems' into more than just a popular hashtag

In Robert Charest's COR 110 classes, students are challenged to reexamine objects they may take for granted, and use them for a unique purpose: to solve a "first world problem."

Its not uncommon to see the phrase first world problemthrown into a witty conversation or jabbered about on social media. However, Associate Professor Robert Charest is attempting to turn these trivial, frustrating issues into learning material for his COR 110 students.

In small groups, Charest challenges his first-year students to create a so-called “first world widget.They must dredge up a pet peeve one encounters in first world society, and invent a prototype which solves it.

For the past 18 years, Charest, a trained architect from Montreal, Quebec, has been teaching design thinking — a solution-generating process that draws on methods from engineering and design, and combines them with ideas from the arts, tools from the social sciences, and insights from the business world.

“This is how we teach in architecture. Its project-based, and its about solving large problems,explains Charest. I also use this way of teaching when I teach general ed classes, like COR 110. Each faculty member teaches COR 110 according to their experience and biases, and I teach mine in a way that requires students to look at objects that weve taken for granted — chairs, tables, pens… I ask students to look at these objects around them and identify a first world problem to solve. Instead of asking them to solve the problem of clean water in Africa, I kick things off on a lighter note.

But the project does not stop at the mere conceptualizing of an idea. Each team must produce a digital presentation or movie, as well as a prototype of the product itself. While the degree of creativity evident in the idea represents the larger portion of the grade, Charests rubric weights the culminating Shark Tank-style presentation as 40 percent of the total grade.

“You would think this would be easy,Charest says, on dreaming up an answer to one of these westernized issues. We all have our little pet peeves. But its funny, because its difficult to identify these problems, and even more difficult because there are a lot of solutions. I tend to start off by showing the students As Seen On TVclips to get them thinking about how these things are pitched and the kind of ideas that are out there.

​This semesters batch of first world solutions was zany and diverse. Six unique designs came out as the result. One was called The Bun Buddy,a device used to cradle a hamburger and keep the fillings inside.

“It was very simple to make. We used the 3D printers, making a few iterations until we got a wall thickness that was perfect and an aperture that was good to hold a medium-sized burger. And it worked,Charest discloses. But they had to pitch it, not just make it.

A second product was a simple plastic cube designed to detangle the mess of charging chords that tend to clump at ones bedside between a phone, laptop, and other devices. A sample of the cube, like The Bun Buddy, was manufactured at The Maker Hub. Another idea involved a coffee cup tumbler which generated special coffee when plugged into a USB. Charest also saw the invention of The Doggy Dojo, a luxury dog bed complete with speakers and cameras, a clear plastic tube which fastens to your faucet and continuously washes waste in the sink, and a Yelp-style app geared specifically towards Elon stores and restaurants.

“The level of thinking from first-year students in the first couple of weeks of school was amazing,Charest attests. Each idea was really cool.

Each student team was able to produce a concrete product to demonstrate and workshop for the class. But for Charest, the project is about much more than the assembly of an interesting ware.

​“What I take away from this project is the entrepreneurial spirit most Elon students have to varying degrees. You cant assign a project like this in every environment and see the students get it,Charest says. You spend four years in architectural school and then years in grad school and then an apprenticeship, so theres a lot of learning that goes along the way. This project just always makes me think that theres something inside each of us which allows you to take an idea to the next level with just a tiny bit of guidance.

As for Charest himself, who ordinarily teaches environmental studies, the question of what first world problem he would like to solve makes him chuckle.

“Really, I dont think I could top the ideas I saw this semester,says the professor. At one end of the spectrum was The Bun Buddy — so quirky and could start selling next week. On the other is this very well-designed app, where everything was thought of except the actual programming. These were students who I put on the spot and I think thats just amazing. It makes my job a lot of fun.