Everybody is an Engineer
A new engineering design thinking initiative for children lands in Thailand at the National Science and Technology Fair
After leaving school, students will enter a world full of complex problems in which there are no more teachers, clear instructions or even correct answers. They will then have to make do with their own critical thinking and problem-solving skills to address challenges in life and at work. At most, they will have their peers alongside them to share ideas with as they search for solutions.
This innovative and collaborative spirit is at the core of the engineering process. When inventing new machinery, there are no instruction manuals or textbooks, only teams dedicated to the continual improvement of a design. At the Enjoy Design Challenges booth at the National Science and Technology Fair 2018, students were presented with such an environment in which they, too, had to develop their own strategic approach to reach a desired outcome.
The Design Challenges activities, developed by the Museum of Science (MOS) Boston, were brought to Thailand by Chevron Enjoy Science in collaboration with the National Science Museum (NSM). As it becomes increasingly recognized that informal education spaces strengthen students’ passion and understanding of STEM both in and out of the classroom, Chevron Enjoy Science and the NSM have sought the most exciting and effective pedagogical tools from around the world to share with Thai students. It is widely accepted that, given the freedom to explore their interests, students become motivated to direct their own learning.
The Design Challenges debuted in Thailand at the Fair this year, which drew one million visitors. Excited by the opportunity to build something with their hands, 71,406 students embarked on the Design Challenges throughout the week.
“Go down, go down, go down!” cheered a lower secondary student, as if his frantic flailing could motivate his satellite to float lower in the vertical air tube.
In the “Soaring Satellites” challenge, students were given an inventory of materials—paper cones, plastic cups, pipe cleaners, straws, various foam shapes and other miscellaneous items—and challenged to make a DIY satellite that could fly just right.
“Almost there,” chimed a ponytailed university student, the National Science Museum employee responsible for guiding students along the process, as a satellite hovered just above the target zone. The boy snatched his satellite back and shot back to the materials booth to revise his design.
“If something doesn’t go properly, that’s okay! You can use that as a learning experience and it doesn’t have to be a bad thing,” emphasized Devyn Curely, Engineering Education Associate at the Museum of Science Boston and one of the trainers for the activity. “The engineering design process focuses on how you use what would typically be a failure, and how you learn from it.”
In the second challenge, “Echo Base Bobsleds,” students created bobsleds to slide down a 2.5-meter track with the objective of crafting the fastest or slowest bobsled. Choosing from a set of different fabrics, students decided to cover their cars with a combination of felt, fur, lace or coarse fabric.
“The first time, the texture was too rough, it didn’t even move,” said a boy as he checked the sturdiness of his new design. “So the second time I took the three heavy ones out and put the two together with only one clip, so that the weight is lighter.”
While laughing and having fun with friends, students were hypothesizing, prototyping, testing, iterating and redesigning — engaging in the same process that every engineer does to develop a new invention.
“Anything can be an engineering process,” said Adrian Melia, Engineering Design Challenges Program Manager. “It’s not just a set of skills that you’re learning, it’s also a mindset, a way of thinking that can be applied anywhere.”
What the Design Challenges teach is not how to complete the challenge itself, but how to engage with the design engineering process. Whether balancing a satellite, increasing friction in a bobsled, inventing a new technology, or addressing social problems, students must exercise critical thinking and creativity to address challenges.
The world that awaits the children will present obstacles of every kind. Whether or not each student becomes an engineer, by practicing the engineering design mindset, they are building the kinds of problem-solving skills that will help them face the world—and design a thriving future.