The Latest Scoop: Engineer Edwin Chan Gets a Taste for Design

A young man in a hoodie smiles outside an artistically-sculpted building

The ubiquitous household dilemma: trying to scoop rock-hard frozen ice cream out of the bin. Fortunately, Edwin Chan is at work on the solution. The Iovine and Young Academy graduate student has made it his project to redesign this classic kitchen tool. His current draft is more of an ice cream clamp with a trigger grip at the top, but this prototype isn't 3D printed or machined from metal. In fact, right now Chan’s ice cream scoop is mostly cardboard, built from the materials he’s mined from his apartment.

For his part, Chan has enthusiastically embraced this quarantine-induced maker’s challenge. "With these low-fidelity cardboard prototypes, the iterative process is very fun! It's just building stuff," he says.

Of course, building physical stuff is quite a new pivot for software developer Edwin Chan. With undergraduate training in computer science and electrical engineering from USC Viterbi School, Chan has always been a problem-solver and excellent coder to boot. His work has won hackathon prizes, including the 2017 YHack Best Use of Amazon Web Services. Chan’s more recent Fishbot project uses sensors to monitor water data for aquatic environments, which attracted enough interest from Y Combinator to fly the team to Silicon Valley. Now, as a student in the Master of Science in Product Innovation at the Academy, Chan has expanded his scope from the virtual realm to the physical. In the process, he has moved from an engineer’s perspective to a designer’s as well.

A delicate 3D printed object rests on a platform

“In engineering, either you can do it or you can’t do it,” says Chan, but as he’s discovered at the Academy, good design isn’t so black and white. “It’s more than functionality, it’s whether something can be better, more refined.” For Chan, emphasis on refinement required a different problem-solving approach than he'd applied to software or hardware. The iterative process is fundamental to design at the Academy, but it was an adjustment for the computer sciences and engineering graduate.

“It was a total mentality shift from engineering!” he says.

Chan’s instructors at the Academy opened his eyes to all the ways that something can satisfy function but can still be improved. “I’ll think something is good, and then I go to Steve [Child], and he’ll say, ‘Wait, that doesn’t make sense.’” Chan recounts going back to the drawing board again and again, trading a watercolor palette for a retro color scheme, then changing yet again to a more scientific look. “With design, I’m learning to ask ‘How can I make this better?’”

A young man holds a spoon and tub of ice cream

Chan’s education in the principles of design at the Academy has changed how he sees the world. “I can’t unsee it now!” he laughs. From billboard typography to the handles on water pitchers, Chan’s awakened eye for design focuses on how little details make a big difference.

As Chan refines his ice cream scoop, each iteration on the prototype improves those little design details and furthers his application of processes he’s being taught. Chan shows off the Mark III scoop, with a finger trigger, and compares it to the Mark IV, whose handle fits comfortably into his whole hand. Both prototypes scoop effectively, from an engineering perspective, but the improvement is obvious: as Chan demonstrates, the current physical prototype leverages the squeezing strength of the whole hand. It is easy to imagine the difference that makes when battling the stoic willpower of an over-frozen Breyer’s.

Prototypes of ice cream scoops

As effective as his cardboard prototypes have been, Chan is looking forward to returning to campus and getting his hands on the extensive fabrication tools onsite at the Academy.

“After I was accepted [to the Academy]...I was looking in the windows of Iovine and Young Hall like ‘Can I go in? Can I go in?’”

Finally, this month, Chan stepped into the Academy’s Creator Studio for the first time.

The timing couldn’t be better: now in the 3D design stage, Chan’s ice cream scoop is nearly ready for real, physical machining. The latest iteration uses the same mechanism as the last, but now its reshaped diagonal lines and sinuous curves create a more compact and aesthetically pleasing product.

An ice cream scoop next to a pint of ice cream

“It’s rewarding,” Chan says. “Creating something physical. And with the design mindset, it looks good and it works well too.”

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