What makes a great Engineering Design project? What creates the magic promised by project-based learning? The range and variety of possible projects is overwhelming. At ProjectEngin we focus on three key principles when developing projects for teachers to use. In our experience working with teachers and students in grades K-12, the best learning happens when there are few barriers to entry, no limits on possibilities, and a chance to make things uniquely your own. It all leads to student-driven learning and increased engagement.
Easy Entry – All of our projects have a decidedly low-tech entry point. Asking teachers and students to learn differently, investigate new ideas, and focus on skills is already a significant challenge. Layering on technology creates too high of a wall and, at times, too much expense. We use simple materials and initial challenges that create easy identification with the end-user. We use basic craft materials to help students tap into their inner engineer. Our projects focus on process and creativity. Expensive “stuff”, complex algorithms, and steep learning curves are decidedly absent from our projects and curriculum. Beginning engineers don’t need 3-D printers to create prosthetic hands; they can learn more about how to design a functioning hand by using simple materials like balsa wood, wire, straws, elastic bands, string, and hooks. Easy entry creates early empowerment!
Sky High – Always leave room for modification and optimization. Engineering is essentially limitless; everything can be engineered better. Initial development and testing should always be followed by time to modify and improve designs. That is a key difference between a science lab activity and an engineering project. There is no one, right answer. The sky is the limit. Students should always have the opportunity to reach as far as possible and to recognize that we can all always do better. Encourage students to look for both incremental and moonshot improvements. Continuous improvement is contagious. Sky high means no limits!
A Mile Wide – Never discourage customization. One of the ideas we stress is that students should have the ability to pick the end-user for their product or process. Good design is based on empathy and addressing someone’s needs. Student choice leads to student engagement. And it showcases the amazing talent in your classroom. Going wide lets everyone start from the same place and reach very different end products. Give students room to follow their own path and to explore those creative edges. Going a mile wide goes beyond thinking outside the box – it knocks down the walls!
We always encourage teachers to think of the design space as being framed by constraints and criteria. It is just as important to think of the learning space as having low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls. When students are comfortable beginning new projects, willing to reach high goals, and engaged in exploring their own path … magic happens!