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College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

Building Global Competence—One Invention at a Time

By Nicki Sirianni — August 15, 2018 6 min read
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Editor’s Intro: Teaching for global competence should be part of every subject, but sometimes it’s difficult to think of ways to integrate global learning into fields like engineering and science. Here, Nicki Sirianni, Outreach and Digital Marketing Specialist at WGBH, shares how Design Squad Global, based on the Emmy Award-winning PBS Kids television series and website, has brought together students from all over the world through afterschool clubs that focus on engineering and invention.

“Coming to Design Squad Global and seeing the number of kids that are engaged in learning, not just about engineering, but also about different countries ... learning things about themselves they didn’t know before they engaged in Design Squad Global ... it just gives me hope for our kids and for the future of education.”

—Reggie Jean, Director of Programs, YMCA Dorchester, MA, USA

To prepare children for 21st-century jobs, it is clear that global competence is a critical skill. Learning about other cultures and people is important, but it only scratches the surface of what global competence truly is.

One way to build global competence in students is through engineering and invention. At Design Squad Global, we combine these two things with global competence to provide students with meaningful opportunities to converse with others from around the globe. By sharing engineering projects with one another, students learn about other places, hear new ideas, and get feedback on their projects from people with different perspectives. These kinds of exchanges enrich students’ understanding of different people and places and strengthens their ability to work with others from around the world.

Students join afterschool Design Squad Global clubs around the world. Regardless of their location, the first few sessions of the clubs focus on engineering activities that address different issues common to people around the globe and introduce kids to the design process as a way of solving problems. The last few sessions are dedicated to the students identifying a problem in their community and working together to build an original invention to solve the problem. For example, in an area in South Africa where power outages are common, one group of kids developed a light-up car that could lead people to safety during a blackout. In Botswana, where there is a high prevalence of HIV, another group designed a fun pill-dispensing game to help children take their medicine.

Design Squad Global then partners clubs together so that students from different parts of the world can share their impactful ideas with one another using photos and videos. Together, partner clubs learn the design and invention process, give each other feedback on their projects, and gain experience in how different communities have different needs. This helps kids in our clubs not only expand their design thinking, but also to expand their thinking about the world.

Below are some tips for using engineering and invention to encourage your students to build their global competence.

Why should you pair engineering and invention with global competence?

“Most of the kids in my club haven’t even been outside of Soweto, so it gets them excited that someone else, outside of where I live, knows about me, and knows that I’m doing this project ... it’s an eye-opener and it gives them so much confidence.”

Kitty Moepang, Educator, Boys & Girls Club, Soweto, South Africa.


  • We are moving toward a more globally intertwined world. This means that global economies and jobs, especially for engineers, are going to require workers who have the skills and aptitudes to work productively across cultures. Providing students with opportunities to build their global competence will make them better candidates for jobs in the 21st century.
  • Sharing and collaboration, especially with people who are different from you, is an important skill to foster in engineering as well as other professional fields. Being able to collaborate, take feedback, and effectively communicate are all necessary to succeed in almost any job! Designing a product and learning how to take and give feedback are a natural fit to have students practice their communication skills.
  • When thinking about engineering and inventing, understanding the community you are designing for is a critical step. By having students work with others from different communities and cultures, they have an opportunity to listen to and understand those who have a different point of view, fostering compassion and empathy.
  • Engineering is a powerful way to take action and make a change in one’s community. Students can and should become active and engaged both in their communities and as global citizens. They should also view engineering as a powerful tool for change that can make the planet more equitable and sustainable for all.

How can you encourage your students to build their global competence?

“It’s a fun experience to learn from other kids in other places around the world, to learn about different ideas and what they have compared to ours.”

DSG Student, Massachusetts, USA


  • Ask questions! Ask your students questions, such as: Who is this invention designed for? Would it be useful in another part of the world? How would you modify it for a community with different needs? These questions aim to get students thinking about the needs of the end user of their invention and helps them assess the application of their creation. This encourages students to think critically about other people in their community and from different parts of the world!
  • Express interest! If you express genuine interest in becoming more familiar with the unknown and demonstrate what it looks like to step out of your comfort zone to learn from and relate with people from different places, cultures, and backgrounds, your students will also grow more open and curious to learning about the world and people around them.
  • Encourage curiosity! Encourage your students to be curious about people and places from different parts of the globe. Have them ask questions. The more information they have about a community they are designing for, the better informed their inventions will be!
  • Embrace flexibility! Being open to new ideas and feedback are important both for understand different people, but also for the invention process. Encourage and model flexibility and openness to change in the classroom!

After participating in a Design Squad Global clubs, students develop an increased interest in people from around the globe. As our world continues to become more interconnected, students who have strong global competence skills and experience collaborating with others will be better prepared for 21st-century jobs. Building on the success of our program, Design Squad Global is developing new content that focuses on engineering for a sustainable future. Coming this Fall, check out the new Inventing Green Club Guide and training materials that inspire kids to use engineering to address the UN sustainable development goals.

Follow Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Photo credit: Don Berstein, taken at the TouchTomorrow Festival in Worchester, MA, and used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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