George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

How to Design Right-Sized Challenges

August 21, 2014

As teams of high school and middle school students gathered to test a mechanical device they had spent months designing and improving, spectators cheered with the fervor of athletic fans. And for good reason. The national finals of the MESA USA National Engineering Design Competition offers a chance to root for our next generation of engineers and scientists, many of whom are devoting their energy and creativity to designing a better world.

It's also an opportunity to learn from the experts about how to imagine a design challenge that hits the sweet spot: relevant to real life, challenging enough to be interesting, and achievable for diverse learners.

Connecting with a Generation that Cares

This year's design challenge offered students a chance to develop their humanitarian spirit along with their design skills. Using low-cost materials, they designed prosthetic arms capable of performing a series of practical challenges, such as throwing a ball toward a target, picking up and relocating household objects, or tightening a bolt. For children in the developing world who have lost limbs because of war or untreated medical issues, access to inexpensive prostheses could be life changing.

"We know that many young people become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) because they want to help people," says David Coronado, president of MESA USA and also director of the Oregon MESA program. The motivation to help others is pronounced in the population MESA serves: primarily low-income youth who are underrepresented in the STEM fields. "Many of these young people have overcome obstacles themselves. Now they want to contribute back to their community. We want to connect to that sentiment," he says.

Since 1970, MESA (which stands for Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement) has been engaging "educationally disadvantaged" students and reigniting their interest in learning. Programs often take place during after-school hours, with classroom teachers as facilitators of informal learning.

"We recruit students who may not be excelling in the regular classroom," Coronado says. Some may not yet have developed the English skills to thrive in advanced math or science classes, but that doesn't mean they are limited when it comes to creative problem solving. For many students, MESA becomes a pathway to the future: 100 percent of those who stay with the program graduate from high school, and 92 percent go on to complete post-secondary programs (including certifications and two-and four-year degrees).

The Lemelson Foundation, a sponsor of the MESA USA championships, focuses on the power of invention to improve lives.

Making Space for Playful Learning

A team from Meadow Park Middle School represented Oregon in the MESA USA championships, where students from 17 schools in nine states competed. Teachers Suzanne Pittock and Meredith VandenBerg told me that the MESA experience is "totally different" from the regular school day. "There's no homework, no grades, no pressure," VandenBerg said. "And as teachers, we're hands off -- this is their design. We're just there to ask questions, not to tell them what to do."

The Meadow Park team included veterans along with first-year members. The veterans were careful to allow newcomers time to "figure things out for themselves," said a student named John, who was a team leader this year. "That's how we learn."

Self-directed learning is a cornerstone of the program, which incorporates project-based learning (PBL) strategies. "You learn more if you figure it out for yourself," said a student named Melissa. "This is so much better than studying for a test."

Although the focus of MESA is squarely on students, this is also a learning opportunity for teachers. "We want to create a sandbox for teachers to interact with students in a way that's fun, engaging, with no pressure. This creates room for teachers to be inventive, too," Coronado says, "and hone new skills. We want them to see that they can do many of the same things during regular class time." Teachers don't need expertise in engineering, Coronado insists. "They need to be experts in fueling curiosity, helping students ask questions and find answers. We encourage teachers to learn together with their kids."

Fine-Tuning a Challenge

Getting design challenges just right takes time, Coronado acknowledges. The MESA USA team spends a year developing and pilot-testing each design challenge. He shared five strategies that teachers can borrow as they consider design challenges:

1. Make it personal: Start with an issue that students can relate to, Coronado advises. MESA chose low-cost prosthetic design because it connects engineering to a global issue. "Some of our students have lived in refugee camps," Coronado says. "Others have come from countries where they did not have access to medical care or supplies. They can share stories of their own, or imagine themselves in situations where this would be a benefit. So they immediately connect to the issue. It's not far-fetched. It's not too abstract. It's real."

2. Seek advice: MESA consults with experts while designing each challenge. That builds in authenticity. For the prosthetics challenge, for instance, MESA consulted with Veterans Administration staff and medical experts who work with amputees. "We want our students doing the same kinds of tests [of their devices] that the experts do when they're designing prostheses," Coronado says.

3. Build small: Imagine a product that will be relatively small. That solves the storage issue. "Think of something [students can design] that can sit on a counter," Coronado says.

4. Build cheap: Setting a limit on costs forces students to be creative when it comes to reusing and reimagining materials. During the MESA USA event, students heard from an inventor named Nate Ball. "He told them that the recycling bin is their playground," Coronado says. "Used metals, plastics, glassware-- those are your prototyping materials." The purpose of prototyping and modeling "is for kids to communicate what they're thinking. This is about building, tinkering, playing with ideas." Ball shared photos of his first designs, made when he was a boy inventor. "His first prototyping material was wood. He learned that he could manipulate it and change it."

5. Think low-tech: MESA deliberately steered clear of technology solutions in its prosthetics challenge. "We didn't want to spend six months teaching students about robotics," Coronado says. Instead, the emphasis was on the design thinking process. "It takes ingenuity, a willingness to build and fail and try again. We want to take the immediate knowledge students have and then push them -- but not so much that they won't want to come back and try again."

Do you incorporate design challenges in your learning environment -- during the regular school day or in informal education settings? Please tell us about your experiences in the comments section below.

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