Design Challenges at the Museum of Science

Design Challenges at the Museum of Science

November 9, 2012 by Lydia Beall

Design Challenges invites visitors to think like engineers as they design, build, and test solutions to a “challenge of the day”. Housed in the Engineering Design Workshop at the Museum of Science, Boston, we’ve served over 350,000 visitors since 2003, and 52% of them are girls. In recent activities, students design a trampoline that will make a golf ball bounce the highest or the lowest, or an arcade claw to pick up the most rubber flamingos or wind-up alligators. Participants select familiar materials (straws, pipe cleaners) and repurposed items (bottle caps, dead batteries) to create and iteratively improve their prototypes, providing an accessible and positive first experience in designing and building. Students adhere to simple design constraints, and art room staples like tape are rationed to encourage creative thinking.

The possibilities begin with a wealth of materials, and challenges given by our facilitators

Many students come to our program with their family or field trip looking for step-by-step instructions (What shape should I use for my windmill blade? Which piece do I attach here?). Our facilitators emphasize creative thinking, experimentation and observation of test runs to improve designs, rather than building from a kit or with a pre-determined plan. Our most successful activities center on a non-subjective test that assesses designs by measuring how high, how fast, how light or how heavy. There is no “right way” to complete a Design Challenges activity. Students are encouraged to test their prototypes, remember their results, change their designs and retest to evaluate their successive iterations. Our facilitators encourage learning from failure, reminding students that real engineers never build anything perfectly on the first try. Custom testing equipment (trampoline testers with ultrasonic sensors to measure ball bounces, a water-filled sailboat track) make the program a unique museum experience that teachers and families plan into their visits. “Today’s records” are posted prominently and updated throughout the day as visitors work to beat record-setting designs with their own novel solutions to the challenge. Every participant is rewarded with an activity specific magnet to take home after they disassemble their designs to recycle and reuse materials.

Our Engineering Design Workshop on a typical day, and magnets earned after a day of challenges

Design Challenges strives to engage students in engineering and design thinking who may not already be in the technology and making pipeline. Some students come to the Engineering Design Workshop with parents who are engineers and are excited to engage in the challenge, but for many others this is a first experience with the discipline. Kids are comfortable using familiar materials they know the properties of – such as pipe cleaners, fabrics and foam. Since kids can quickly start designing and building, they can spend most of their time with the “meat” of the activity – creative problem solving and testing – rather than listening to instructions.

Our “Create-a-Claw” Design Challenge to build a claw to retrieve toys from a tank

Encouraging girls in engineering design is a tenet of the Design Challenges program, and a focus of our recent evaluation efforts. The Engineering Design Workshop is a purposefully gender-neutral environment; we work to maintain gender equity in the staff and volunteers, and use gender-neutral colors in our materials and equipment. Bright colors are often used in museum exhibits to attract the attention of kids, and we try to use a color palette of orange, green, purple . . . and pink. Most students (including the boys) probably do not notice these efforts, but our experience suggests that – for a subset of girls, and for a subset of parents – materials that are pink and purple are an indicator that an activity is “for them” or for their daughters. Further, while formal education research suggests that competition can deter girls’ engagement in engineering activities, our experience at Design Challenges suggests that in a museum setting, this may be helpful. One reason for this may be that every challenge is introduced with multiple goals (fast or slow bobsled, high or low bouncing trampoline, etc.) Having multiple goals creates different competitions and allows students to have more choice about with whom they would like to compete. Often kids will attempt one goal, gain experience with the materials and the testing equipment, and then change to another goal to compete with peers from school or with family members. Moreover, competition keeps students and families engaged in the activity for extended periods of time – the average hold time for school groups at Design Challenges is 20 minutes, and many family groups often stay for over an hour. Kids often check back later in the day to see if their record has held up, and then complete the activity a second time.

Students building and testing bobsleds

Design Challenges plans to continue developing museum-specific activities that demonstrate to students the broad scope of engineering disciplines and expand the image of “engineers”. While many teachers are comfortable facilitating civil engineering activities like bridge building, Design Challenges is capitalizing on a unique opportunity to expand the perception of “design” beyond the engineering of infrastructure and vehicles. Our newest activities have materials and biomechanical engineering themes, and we are developing electrical engineering and computer science challenges for the future.

Design Challenges teacher resources, standards map and worksheets available online.







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