Southwest Educational Development Laboratory

Classroom Compass
Volume 2 Number 3
Summer 1996


Introduction to Design in the Classroom

Design: Constructive Thought and Action
Problems are Everywhere
Designing Solutions - from Kindergarten to High School

Students in Ms. Clark's fifth-grade science class are busy. Their desks are clustered in several work areas and a few of the students are sitting on the floor, intently piecing together parts of cereal boxes and wooden ice cream sticks. One student is making a rough sketch on the chalkboard. An assigned problem is defined on a chart:

Grandmother can't open her pill bottle. She lives alone. She needs her medicine every four hours. How can she get the medicine she needs?

Another chart presents a short challenge statement or "design brief":

Design and make a device that will help Grandmother regularly receive her medicine.

Listen in as Ms. Clark visits with several teams. The first group is testing different construction materials and finishing a sketch of a proposed solution.

"At first we set up the design with a pill dispenser knob, but then we were thinking if Grandmother can't open a little pill bottle, how could she turn a knob?" a student is saying. "We need something that is easier to open - maybe we should try a lever or a pull string."

"Your device looks promising," says the teacher, looking at the sketch. "What are your ideas for materials and connections?"

"We tried gluing pieces of plastic," says Karen, "and that didn't work."

"What happened when you glued it?" inquires the teacher.

"Roberto had to hold the pieces together, and the glue dripped out when he squeezed it."

"What did you do then?" Ms. Clark probes.

"We decided to use brads to clip them together."

"Did that work?"

"We're still working on that part..."

In another group three girls have a different solution. Made from a large cereal box and a spring-loaded delivery chute, their device connects to a timer and a switch that holds a trap door shut. Pills, loaded in the top, will rattle down the delivery chute at timed intervals. The students clamor to demonstrate for the teacher:

"Look! Look! It almost works!"

Design: Constructive Thought and Action

Design in the science and mathematics classroom challenges students to apply their learning. Faced with a defined problem, students must use productive and critical thinking, analysis, decision making, and evaluation skills to produce tangible solutions. Design challenges can draw from a variety of disciplines and require a variety of responses. In some situations, students plan and build a product; sometimes, they analyze the solutions of others. Some classes take their ideas beyond the classroom and put them to work outside the classroom.

Science in schools should focus on discoveries children can make through inquiry; the best science educators permit a rich variety of these discoveries to co-exist and do not force the students to converge upon only one idea. Design is the technological parallel to inquiry. It offers students experience in planning and making models of useful things and introduces them to laws of nature through their understanding of how objects and systems work. It pursues solutions to problems: how to design an efficient boat hull, how to get across a river, or how to open a pill bottle with arthritic hands. Going back to the drawing board runs through the design process; troubleshooting and modifying plans, designing and building different models, and relying on teamwork strategies are integral to the spirit of the design classroom.

Science, mathematics, and technology are entwined in modern life. Practical manifestations of science and mathematics touch our lives many times each day. Integration of the disciplines, including aspects of social and historical concern, reflect the reality of our culture and the world our students will soon join as adults. Design assignments can pull together threads from many disciplines, certainly science and mathematics, but also social studies, language arts, and fine arts. The interactive cooperation required for successful group problem solving provides a practice ground for experiences in the adult workplace.

Design technology, a national curriculum in the United Kingdom, harkens back to the "practical arts" of American classrooms in the 1930s and 1940s. Once common in our schools, skills such as using tools and making decisions on craft materials became less important than academic pursuits in the 1950s and were eventually reserved for secondary students on vocational tracks. Today those boundaries seem less clear: vocational classes are being phased out. Courses in robotics and other applied technologies are targeted for all students. Teachers in elementary grades are finding that the basics of design are an exciting addition to their young students' curriculum. Science and mathematics teachers at all levels can use design projects to pose problems and encourage constructive thinking about solutions.

Problems are Everywhere

Teachers report that finding problems is a difficult step for students, but many problems can be identified in everyday living. Examples such as life's persistent hassles (travel time to work is increasingly slow because of traffic snarls), children's literature (the pigs' houses couldn't stand the wolf's huffing and puffing), and opportunities to improve our quality of life (fast food containers are filling up the landfill) provide opportunities for discussion and design solutions.

Some practice in brainstorming ideas and then suggestions that can be translated into an invention can help students build their skills in problem finding. Encourage them to jot down things that are nuisances. Here are a few: When an ice cube tray is emptied, one or two cubes often fall on the floor; feet can get too hot in the bottom of sleeping bags; too many drinking glasses may be used during the day; a dog's hair can get all over the chairs she rubs against. Can you think of inventions that could help solve these problems?

Literature can be a source for problems and inspire thinking about solutions and designs. "Three Billy Goats Gruff" is a good example. The goats want to cross the bridge, but a goat-eating troll always awakens and threatens them. How can we solve this problem? Perhaps the goats are too noisy crossing the wooden bridge. Is there another way to get across? Or a way to silence their hooves?

Social concerns can be another focus for design problem solving. For example, designing a lift that helps an elderly relative up a flight of stairs would benefit an audience outside the classroom. Rethinking the fabrication of toys to reduce use of raw materials or suggesting alternative routes to get to school are examples of design projects that could benefit the audience within the classroom. Critical thinking, imagination, and responsible action combine to produce rewarding and relevant classroom experiences.

Designing Solutions - from Kindergarten to High School

As children begin their school careers, they can tackle problems that are appropriate for their developmental level - for example, have young children think about and design new ways to fasten their coats or move through the room. They can also study technological products common to their world - zippers, bridges, or coat hooks. As they advance in the elementary years, problems and investigations should include more than one material and several contexts in science and technology. Students might make a device to shade eyes from the sun, compare two types of string to see which is best for lifting different objects, explore how small potted plants can be made to grow as quickly as possible, make yogurt and discuss how it is made, or design a simple system to hold two objects together. It is important to include design problems that require application of ideas, use of communications, and implementation of procedures - for instance, improving hall traffic at lunch or cleaning the classroom after scientific investigations.

During the middle school years, the design tasks can cover a range of needs, use a variety of materials, and draw on various aspects of science. Suitable experiences include making electrical circuits for a warning device, designing a meal to meet nutritional guidelines, choosing a material that combines strength with insulation, or designing a system to move dishes in a restaurant or in a production line.

Such work can be complemented by the study of technology in the everyday world. Investigating simple, familiar objects helps students develop powers of observation and analysis - for example, middle school students can compare the characteristics of competing consumer products, including cost, convenience, and durability. Regardless of the product studied, students need to understand the science behind it. Choose a variety of products including clothing, food, structures, and simple mechanical and electrical devices. Also include problems that are not concerned with products to help students understand that technological solutions include the design of systems (for example, traffic control design or recycling solutions) and can involve communication, ideas, and rules.

At the high school level, students can participate in major design projects that deepen their understanding of technology and provide a richer sense of the links between technology, mathematics, and science. Students may perceive science as positive (as in "scientific progress") and technology as negative ("technological problems"). They may not be clear about the roles, limits, and relationships between technology and other disciplines. For example, technology can create a demand for new scientific knowledge. The availability of new technology often sparks scientific advances as scientists extend their research or try entirely new lines of inquiry.

High school projects should include familiar examples from the home, school, or community as well as problems from wider contexts - the nation, the world. Social and economic forces strongly influence which technologies will be developed and used and many factors, such as personal values, consumer acceptance, or the availability of risk capital, influence what and how products will be developed. At this level, students can examine ideas of risk analysis and technology assessment. Designed systems are often subject to failure but the risk of failure can be reduced by a variety of means: more research ahead of time, more controls, or fail- safe designs. The designer must balance a variety of issues including cost considerations, safety factors, and consumer acceptance with possible failures to determine the viability of developing the product.

Across all grade levels, design can be a purposeful, creative, and practical process of giving form to ideas. It fosters exploration and the application of relevant information to achieve something of value, and it can spark excitement and enthusiasm among students.

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