Design Squad is an NSF-funded digital hub for middle school children that includes (1) television episodes and short videos streamed on pbskids.org, (2) an online community of young engineers, and (3) hands-on engineering activities. Designed to increase children’s understanding of engineering, the Emmy and Peabody Award–winning television series follows two teams of teens as they design and build projects for real-world clients—from constructing cardboard furniture for IKEA to designing peanut butter makers for a women’s collective in Haiti.
Its spin-off television series, Design Squad Nation, showcases engineer co-hosts Judy and Adam as they travel across the country, working side by side with teens to turn their dreams into reality through engineering. Tackling an array of engineering projects—including a water-saving toilet and a human-powered flying machine—the show aims to get kids thinking about the creativity and fun involved in engineering projects. Online, Design Squad’s Emmy Award-winning website at pbskids.org/designsquad provides kids with one of the only places on the Web where they can safely share their engineering ideas, sketches, and photos with other kids. And offline, Design Squad’s 69 hands-on engineering activities (available in the Parents and Educators section of the website) enable kids to exercise their design skills, tapping into their ingenuity and teaching them to think like engineers.
A powerful introduction to engineering for a middle school age group, Design Squad combines real-world engineering problems with simple, easily accessible materials, allowing students to imagine themselves as engineers and engage in engineering endeavors. More specifically, Design Squad:
- features challenges that are open-ended, are focused on improving the world by meeting people’s needs, and provide the experiential basis for understanding science concepts;
- gets kids comfortable with the design process and bolsters their confidence in designing and building; and
- provides formal and informal educators with resources (in-person trainings and online tutorials) for introducing the design process and ways to teach hands-on, open-ended challenges.
Concurrent with production of Design Squad’s digital hub, WGBH, Purdue University, and Concord Evaluation Group are collaborating on the NSF-funded Informal Pathways to Engineering (IPE) project. IPE is a research study designed to document the ways in which informal engineering programs support, or fail to support, children’s engineering-related interests, outcome expectations, and self-efficacy. It is also exploring how informal programs motivate children to learn about engineering, as well as how these programs encourage children to seek out engineering activities. By enriching and expanding the assets of Design Squad, while carefully researching children’s informal engineering experiences, the IPE study is breaking new ground in the quest to understand how to create pathways that encourage children to ultimately pursue engineering careers.
Evaluations have confirmed the project’s impact on children’s attitudes towards and knowledge of engineering. A summative evaluation demonstrated that after watching only four episodes, students had a strong understanding of the featured engineering concepts, increased their design process skills, and changed their stereotypes about engineering—for the better. Even more impressive, nearly two-thirds of the children were interested in participating in an engineering afterschool program after viewing, compared with just below one-third prior to viewing (GRG, 2008). Subsequent evaluation found that children exposed to Design Squad demonstrated significant gains in their understanding of key science concepts and improved their attitudes about engineering stereotypes as compared to a control group (CEG, 2010).
Since its premiere in 2007, Design Squad has produced 46 half-hour episodes, 24 short career profiles of engineers, and 62 animations of STEM concepts. The project has launched an online community with 118,000 monthly visits and over 74,000 engineering project ideas submitted by members; two Facebook pages (with more than 11,000 fans); an active Twitter feed (with close to 1,000 followers); and a YouTube channel (with more than 500,000 views of its videos). Offline, Design Squad has conducted 736 trainings, workshops, and events for 250,948 engineers, educators, kids, and families across the country. More than 8,000 programs have used Design Squad’s educational materials, which include seven educators’ guides, an online introduction to engineering professional development course for the Massachusetts Department of Education, an online workshop in partnership with NASA on how to lead engineering activities, and a year-long high school freshman technical education course.
Over the past five years, Design Squad has built a community committed to fostering a positive image of engineering. Through partnerships with more than 100 engineering and education organizations, we have worked together to deliver engaging engineering activities to places where 9- to 13-year-olds can be found: afterschool programs, schools, museums, and malls. Activities, which our partners often fund through sources in their own local communities, include training other educators and engineers, hosting public events, organizing camps and afterschool programs, linking to our website, highlighting Design Squad on their email lists, and distributing our educational resources. Their extensive activities result from the fact that not a lot of other resources both fill the need for engineering education and are turn-key and accessible.
Executive Summaries of the aforementioned evaluations can be found on http://informalscience.org.