Recently, in my bioengineering course, we were having a lively discussion about “ideation” - thinking of novel, crazy, outside-the-box solutions to problems in the world we saw as urgent. As I watched my students come up with solutions to their problems - a color sensor for burnt toast, a pressure sensor to detect fouls on the soccer field, low-cost motion sensors to detect speeding cars - I was struck with a question: Why don’t we do this type of “engineering design” more often to solve issues in our schools?
You might have had some exposure to the concept of “engineering design” or “design thinking”. Regardless of the name, the processes follow the same basic steps:
Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Make a Plan
Test and Evaluate Your Plan
Modify and Retest
If you follow these steps in the problems you face in your school already - congratulations! You think like an engineer! If you’d like to learn a bit more about some suggestions for how to approach each step, keep reading!
1) Identifying Issues
Observations are a valuable tool for identifying root issues in schools. Have a student misbehaving in class? Take the time to observe that student in other subjects. Have issues in the hallway? Stake a spot and just observe the hallway for an hour to really get a feel for it. Also - don’t be afraid to interview students! You’ll be surprised how insightful even students you might’ve labelled as “troublemakers” can be when you sit them down to ask them about their school experiences.
2) Brainstorm Possible Solutions
Brainstorming is the stage at which you most likely visualize trendy “design thinking” workshops, with participants adding post-its to the wall and staring pensively at chart paper. Don’t feel intimidated - yes, you too can write ideas on post-its and stare at chart paper! The best part of any brainstorming session is “ideation” - thinking of as many ideas as possible, without considering limitations. I tell my students that your best idea is just over the river, and you’ve got to hop through lots of bad ideas to cross the river. But, if you never give those bad ideas a chance to help your creativity work, you’ll never make it to the other side of the river - where your truly good ideas are!
3) Make a Plan
When you make a plan for your school, you have to make sure it is actionable and measurable. And you have to make sure that it is actually a plan that you are willing to commit to! Engineers understand the functional requirements and constraints of any scenario they are entering into. Keep those in mind while designing your solutions!
4) Test and Evaluate Your Plan
When testing your plan of action - collect as much information you can to help you determine the efficacy of your plan! Student quizzes, observations, and student surveys are all great ideas. And don’t forget to get an outside opinion when evaluating your plan! While your administrator might be a great place to start (and you might score points when you tell them you’re “engineering” a solution in your class and want their opinion), you can also ask colleagues or student aids to help provide some feedback.
5) Modify and Retest
Did your plan work?! Great - now make it better. Think about: retooling it to make it even more effective, implementing the idea in a new class or context, or helping another teacher to use your plan.
Did your plan fall short? Great - you’ve still got a lot of information to work with. Retool your plan, keep what worked, and adjust what didn’t.
If these steps seem obvious, that is great! The more intuitive the engineering design process becomes, the more intentional you will be with the changes you implement in your school. I strongly encourage you to read more into engineering design, and encourage your administration or professional development teams to formally ensure that all of the major steps of this process are being followed whenever you address any issue in your school. Happy Engineering!
Vince Joralemon is a biology teacher at Frank McCourt high School who is passionate about getting students involved in meaningful ways in the classroom. He founded a nationally recognized science research program and also developed a robust peer mentoring program at his school. He loves cooking and gardening with his beautiful wife. Vince acts as session coordinator and oversees logistics for EDxEDNYC!