Design Squad Nation

Nathan  Kahl Posted on November 22, 2010 by Nathan Kahl

“Nationally, women make up only one-fifth of students in engineering programs…One of the reasons has to do with the negative stereotype of engineers—the nerd drinking Cokes and eating Twinkies until 3 in the morning. The really important attribute of an engineer is creativity. Somehow that’s not what…girls are hearing about.” 

—William Wulf, Past President, National Academy of Engineering

Design Squad is the Peabody- and Emmy-Award winning PBS reality competition show where two teams of teens design and build projects for real clients—from constructing cardboard furniture for IKEA…to building hockey net targets for the Boston Bruins…to designing low-cost peanut butter machines for a women’s collective in Haiti. With its award-winning TV show, robust outreach campaign, and interactive Web site, the project has had a phenomenal impact in kids’ engineering learning.

Beating the seterotypes

Negative stereotypes about engineering—that it’s nerdy, tough, and for boys-only—have discouraged many kids from exploring engineering. It is our belief that young people don’t understand the rewards of an engineering career and therefore don’t consider it an option. This conclusion is drawn from research conducted for WGBH’s NSF-funded project Engineer Your Life and the National Academy of Engineering’s Changing the Conversation project. Through these initiatives, WGBH learned that the current messages about engineering—which disproportionately emphasize the extraordinary math and science skills needed and the challenges inherent in these jobs—are off-putting. To get kids interested, the engineering community needs to emphasize the teamwork, social benefits, and creativity of engineering, which is exactly what Design Squad is doing.

Our goal is to tackle “the challenge” through a powerful multi-media and engagement campaign targeting:

  • Middle-school aged kids
  • The engineering community
  • Informal and formal educators

Since its premiere in 2007, Design Squad has shot 44 half-hour episodes, produced 24 short career profiles of engineers, and launched an interactive Web site, with streaming video and WGBH’s first multiplayer game—FIDGIT. The project has conducted 120 trainings for 4,571 engineers and educators, and engaged 149,368 kids and families with hands-on engineering activities through 410 events and workshops across the country. 81 engineering and education organizations have become formal partners, and 14,376 programs have used Design Squad’s educational materials, which include six educators’ guides (containing step-by-step directions and leaders’ notes for 40 activities) targeted to afterschool providers, engineers, and teachers.

A broad range of users, in both formal and informal educational settings, praise Design Squad as an effective means for leading design challenges, getting kids excited about engineering, and helping them use a student-centered problem solving process. From parents: “My child’s understanding of basic physical properties dramatically increased.” “[Design Squad] was a good experience for our daughter, and I believe she will consider engineering ideas in the future.” From educators: “Design Squad challenges increase students' understanding. The challenges help students learn to work together, talk, and discuss ideas. It is wonderful to see students take a situation, solve the situation and produce a working product.” From public television stations: "Design Lives Here—a Design Squad event presented by WQED multimedia â€and the Engineers’ Society of Western Pennsylvania—is an example of how television, teacher training, and face-to-face interaction between kids and scientists can foster a love of engineering and a potential career."

Design Squad challenges ...  help students learn to work together, talk, and discuss ideas. It is wonderful to see students take a situation, solve the situation and produce a working product.

– surveyed educator

In addition to this anecdotal feedback, we have concrete evidence that Design Squad has significantly improved students’ understanding about engineering. A summative evaluation conducted by Concord Evaluation Group found that Design Squad both facilitated the development of skills that are essential for students performing engineering challenges and has had a statistically significant impact on student learning of key science concepts. Equally important, after using Design Squad, students’ attitudes about engineering and about engineering stereotypes improved significantly.

Coming to a community near you

Shifting away from the reality competition format of Design Squad, the Design Squad Nation spin-off takes the engineering and building fun of the original series and brings it directly to kids around the country and the globe. From conception to finished product, Design Squad Nation combines engineering know-how with kids’ passions to create amazing things that improve people’s lives.

Over ten episodes, engineer co-hosts Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer travel across the country and around the world, working side-by-side with kids to turn their dreams into reality. Whether it is a red-carpet worthy gown for fashion designer Christian Siriano or a playground for kids in a rural village high in Nicaragua’s northern mountains, Design Squad Nation shows that engineering isn’t about hiding away in some lab; it’s about being active in the world, taking risks, collaborating with interesting people, and using science, math, and technology to solve real problems.

You are creative and can solve problems. You can make things that help people. We want you to join the Design Squad Nation.

The Design Squad Nation Web site is a destination for creative tweens and teens, promoting the message: You are creative and can solve problems. You can make things that help people. We want you to join the Design Squad Nation. Let's dream big. Let's build something together. On the site, kids can work alongside co-hosts Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer posting real-life solutions to real-life problems and responding to challenges from the show by sketching and building their own prototypes. The Design Squad Nation Blog features inspiring engineering and DIY content from across the web. The blog will engage with the Design Squad Nation community directly by including calls to action, how-to challenges, aspirational examples of kid-made content on the site, and first person video and messages from Judy and Adam—sharing both the fun and the failures that are a part of the design process. Already, more than 12,000 kids are members of Design Squad Nation, actively creating and sharing content in our online community.

The Design Squad Nation TV show and Web site, along with the work of our long-standing partners and our targeted outreach efforts, will help us to spark kids’ inventive spirit, expand our reach, and ultimately keep educators, engineers, and millions of kids invested and engaged in content-rich engineering challenges.

For more information contact:

Julie Benyo
Director, Educational Outreach
WGBH Television

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