Design Olympics competition, 'Battle of the Bulbs,' encourages creativity

October 29, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Shaving cream-covered plates lie on high-top tables located in the design den, the engineering design graduate student studio. Broken balloon pieces are scattered around the room. Students clad in Britelab and Leadership & Innovation Lab attire maneuver through an obstacle course comprised of water bottles, garbage cans, chairs and backpacks while trying to balance a coin on their noses. Welcome to the Design Olympics, a design-thinking competition between engineering and psychology students celebrating the interdisciplinary and collaborative nature of the study of creativity.

Led by Scarlett Miller, director of the Britelab and associate professor of engineering design, industrial engineering and mechanical engineering, and Sam Hunter, director of the Leadership & Innovation Lab and associate professor of industrial and organizational psychology, the idea for an Olympic-style competition stemmed from their collaborative work on projects like understanding the impact product dissection has on design innovation and learning opportunities. This project, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), investigates how the design of existing projects affects students’ abilities to create innovative design to meet society’s needs.

After receiving a seed grant together at the 2011 Center for Research in Design and Innovation Design Summit and securing two NSF grants together, Miller and Hunter recognized that only a fraction of their large lab research groups were able to interact through these projects.

“Engineering design is at the cusp of many disciplines. In order for design research to be successful, it is essential that we recognize this, and foster interdisciplinary relationships,” Miller said. “We created the Design Olympics as a way to foster collaboration between our students and practice the very essence of what we research - design, creativity and leadership.”  

Also known as the “Battle of the Bulbs,” as each lab’s brand mark includes a light bulb, the contest includes new creative challenges each year. Student representatives from each lab are asked to generate team tasks centered around design, collaboration, creativity and ingenuity.

Ranging from an obstacle course around the University Park campus to a javelin toss using hula hoops and pool noodles in Foundry Park located outside of the Hammond Building, undergraduate and graduate students engaged in research in the Britelab and the Leadership & Innovation Lab use their resourceful engineering, psychology, teamwork and communications skills to complete challenges that range in complexity.

“Every year at the Design Olympics is different. We always have new lab members and new challenges selected for the competition,” Elizabeth Starkey, postdoctoral scholar in SEDTAPP and Britelab member, said. “These new challenges require us to work as a team and think creatively to complete the tasks and since we have never done the tasks before we really need to think outside the box.”

Though the team tasks may vary in difficulty, the scoring is simplistic - the first team to complete each task receives a point and the team with the most points at the end of the competition is named the Design Olympics champion. The winning team receives the traveling trophy. Designed before the inaugural Design Olympics in 2013 by BriteLab members, the trophy fosters a friendly, competitive environment encouraged by the competitive natures of Miller and Hunter.

And though the Design Olympics centers around a series of friendly battles between the two research labs, the end result Hunter is proudest of is the collaborative nature and connections made during the competition.

Hunter explained that a concept in psychology known as the "value in diversity hypotheses," explains that people’s most creative ideas actually come from connections with people outside of their disciplines. 

“Within our fields, it's easy to take core assumptions for granted, and folks outside of a given field will directly challenge those assumptions. Sometimes it's straightforward to defend those concepts or principles I assumed to be true. Other times, it forces me to rethink my position and see things in a new light,” Hunter said. “New disciplines also have a lot to teach us - my psychology colleagues and I have similar training and while I do learn a great deal from them, it's often nuanced within my field. Outside of the area are big "chunks" of knowledge to be gained and this is often exhilarating.”  

For Hunter, the reason for interdisciplinary collaboration is simple – teamwork produces noteworthy results.

“I want to solve big problems and big problems are not solved by a single discipline. Significant and substantive progress requires working together,” he said.


  • wooden and metal trophy with two lightbulbs at the top

    Each year, the winner of the Design Olympics is awarded the traveling trophy. Designed by past members of the Britelab, the trophy features two lightbulbs which represent each of the participating labs.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Woman uses squirt gun to move red plastic cup down a string held by another woman

    Members of the Britelab compete in a challenge where squirt guns were used to move a red plastic cup down a piece of string.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Three students pose with a structure made of uncooked spaghetti, tape and a marshmellow

    Leadership and Innovation Lab members pose with their uncooked spaghetti and marshmallow structure at the inaugural Design Olympics.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • A group of people balance a tennis ball on strings that are tied together in the center

    Members of the Britelab lower a tennis ball down to a red plastic cup by balancing it on six strings.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Two students lead two of their team members through

    Britelab and Leadership & Innovation Lab members make their way through an obstacle course during the 2018 Design Olympics. Lab members were blindfolded and led through the obstacle course by a partner.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated October 29, 2018