The interactive website for the PBS series “Design Squad Nation” took home an Emmy in June for “outstanding new approaches” in children’s daytime television. An extension into broadband media by the producers of the WGBH TV show, the website serves as a destination for creative ‘tweens and teens that encourages youth to “dream big,” be creative, solve problems and make things that help people.
On the site, which was funded in large part by the National Science Foundation, kids work alongside the show’s co-hosts—dynamic twenty-somethings and genuine engineers Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer—to post real-life solutions to real-life problems and respond to challenges by sketching and building their own prototypes. Designs have included a cake with moving parts, flying machines, home-made skateboards, pollution solutions, and exploring the three dimensions of fabric to create new fashions.
“Be creative, take risks and make a difference in people’s lives,” says Vollmer in one of the site’s short videos. Indeed, the show celebrates both the fun and the failures that are a part of the design process.
“Design Squad Nation” highlights engineers, who are often at the forefront of technological revolutions but are much less recognized by young people as potential role models than, say, scientists, nurses, or teachers. In particular, the show strives to appeal to girls and minorities, who otherwise might have little opportunity to imagine themselves in engineering careers.
The potential value of this kind of programming came into focus last month when the Department of Education released results from the most recent National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). In addition to the standard paper-and-pencil questions, that study—called The Nation’s Report Card: Science in Action—asked fourth-, eighth-, and twelfth-graders to complete two types of hands-on, interactive computer tasks, which can help assess how well students are able to perform scientific investigations, draw valid conclusions, and explain the thinking behind their results. Test results indicated that, too often, students lack the ability to apply their learning analytically to unstructured problem solving—an important reminderthat science education is not just about learning facts in a classroom but also about doing activities in which students put their understanding of science principles into action. That’s a need that “Design Squad Nation” aims to fill.
In the tradition of science, the show producers plan to carry out their own study to understand better how informal engineering programs like “Design Squad” may motivate children to learn about engineering. In the meantime, NAEP is planning a technology and engineering literacy assessment in 2014. Both studies are expected to shed light on the important question of how best to elevate science and engineering literacy among America’s young people—both inside and outside the classroom.
Leslie Fink is a Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the National Science Foundation.