Lessons in Engineering Solutions

I have had the opportunity to build a lot of things over my years at The Ellis School. There are the things you might expect: lasting relationships with students, a new FIRST LEGO League (FLL) table to accommodate our second FLL team, a Van de Graaf generator (although, I suppose I didn't build this as much as I electrocuted myself trying to fix it). There are things I lent a hand to in building: a handful of aqueducts over the years, a few coats of paints on scenery for the theater (and a light spackling on a pair of shoes I still quite fancy), and the occasional Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science project. At the end of the day though, I think the creation I might treasure most is our Introduction to Engineering Design course, and I'm excited to get to share this with our whole junior class this year.
Our goal with this course is to give Ellis girls a chance to put the engineering design process into play in the world outside the walls of Ellis. We'll spend half of the year familiarizing ourselves with the design process before taking on a project for an organization in our community. On the design front, this grows naturally out of the experience the girls have in Culture in Context in their sophomore year. There they work on a design project for an on-campus client with a fairly constrained prompt. In Engineering Design they will take the next step, both by stepping out into the community as well as into the unknown, with the problems they may be tasked with designing solutions for. As for the engineering aspect, the girls will be focusing on the construction and testing of physical prototypes to meet the needs, wants, and requirements that they identified by interviewing their clients. This may require the noble sacrifice of many Amazon boxes, unexpected configurations of PVC pipe and stucco, and probably no fewer than three trips to Home Depot.
When the initial team of faculty set out to design this course we knew that one thing we had to center was what it means to work in a group. If we were going to ask the girls to invest a year working in groups on these long-term projects, then we had to be right there with them modeling how a group can get things done. I have had the privilege to teach this course with six different teachers in a plethora of different configurations over the years, and I know that this course only works because so many people have contributed to it. We have run through our own design process time and time again, learning from our mistakes and pushing out a new prototype for the next attempt. Our efforts to balance tasks and juggle schedules mirror the challenges the girls face in working on these projects, and we strive to model the strategies we offer the girls in their journeys.
In doing this, I've had the chance to learn a few lessons that I hope to pass on to the girls. First, taking on the unknown is hard to prepare for, but Google can often be a good place to start.  Second, it is profoundly important to fail, and ideally to fail early. There are few things worse than getting right to the edge of a deadline and realizing that you haven't actually designed something that solves your problem!  This is closely tied to my last lesson, and that's to resist the urge to fall in love with the first idea that you have. Just like it can be tempting to rush into solving a problem before you've understood the problem, imprinting on your first idea can cause a group to miss entire ranges of creative, potential solutions.
What we want to see at the end of the year are groups of students who have gone out into the world with the goal of making it better, one problem at a time. We want them to be able to do this together, building on each other's strengths to solve problems that are too much for any one of them alone. We want them to use their voices and confidently share their results with the community at large, taking pride in their process and their results. I've enjoyed having a hand in building this class, and I look forward to seeing what this class builds this year!