Teaching Opinion

From “Very Cool” to “Well Designed:" Tips for Engineering Tasks

By John T. McCrann — June 02, 2016 3 min read
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We encounter design problems every day. I was reminded of a couple of annoying ones the other day when listening to the TED Radio Hour.

Guy Raz, the show’s host, and Tony Fadell, an Apple engineer who helped design the iPod, started the show by discussing modern design annoyances like peeling the sticker of a piece of fruit.

Fadell concludes, “The amount of good design in the world is very rare versus all this mediocrity that we deal with.”

So why do we have so much mediocre design? At times, I wonder if I am hurting instead of helping this problem in the STEM classes I teach.

In my class and at my school this semester, students have engaged in a number of engineering-style design tasks. At the beginning of the semester I had students construct mobile art pieces in the style of Alexander Calder. While I still think this is an interesting task, and one that allowed me to gain insight into my students thinking about equivalence, I now fear that it contributed to our mediocre design problem.

In this task, I assessed students’ ability to create balanced mobiles using their knowledge of torque and equilibrium. I also encouraged them to design pieces that “looked cool.” But what does it really mean to “look cool” and why should my students care whether or not their mobile achieve this?

Fortunately, over the course of this semester, I have been able to work with science teachers in our department who are designing Performance Based Assessment Tasks (PBATs) that will be assessed with an engineering design rubric. (Students at our school and dozens of other public schools across New York who are in the New York Performance Standards Consortium are award graduation based on successful completion of PBATs instead of state exams).

Students in these science classes are designing videogames and paint colors,but the moves that they are making to promote good design are applicable to any design challenge.

Here are a few takeaways from our ongoing conversation:

1. Start with a compelling human need: Fadell and his team didn’t develop the iPod because someone told them to do it; they designed in response to a need to store and access more music. Our students too can find compelling human needs in the design projects they encounter. At Harvest, this means that students research and explain why their video games will help classmates or why a certain color of paint is more apt to create a soothing environment. This step not only makes the project more meaningful and engaging, but also helps students understand the significance of “design” as something that can make the world a better place.

This is the biggest mistake I made with the mobile task. Students created something, but they had no way to begin to think about whether or not that thing was effectively meeting the criteria for a well-designed art project. In their PBATs, students have well-defined criteria AND data about whether or not those criteria have been met.

3. Make changes based on that data: Alright, this one is kind of obvious, but I bet I’m not the only teacher out there who has had students build something and write about what went well and what went wrong without having them rebuild.

4. Assess all the above: The real power of assessing experimental design tasks with a rubric like the one developed by the Performance Standards Consortium is that it gives teachers the chance to give students feedback on how well they are doing engineering instead of just on how well their design turned out. Assessing with this rubric allows my colleagues and me to give targeted feedback that drives students to think more deeply about their criteria and their process for maximizing their efficacy of the design. Magically, this also leads to better designs, but the real learning is in how to do design, which is a more powerful and transferable skill.

“We all have the potential improve the world around us through design,” Guy Raz proclaims at one point in the introduction to the aforementioned radio episode.

He may well be right, but my experience suggests that this “potential” must be cultivated. Students who build something “cool” are not necessarily engaging in engineering design. As teachers, we should find ways to guide our students towards thoughtful design instead of making cool stuff.

Photo 1: Screenshot of “Fight to Survive Time and Space Version 3.” Game developed by Harvest student Dwell Santos

Photo 2 by author. Students test a “marble roller coaster” design

Special thanks this week to the teachers in our science department who designed engineering PBATs and talked with me about them: Ashraya Gupta (tweets @Ashraya), Paul-Michael Huseman, and Pam Hallsson (who don’t tweet, but if you tweet to me I’ll pass along your message)

Follow John McCrann on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy 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.